One of the most difficult things about helping the suffering is the amount of emotional investment involved. There can be a sense of futility and overwhelm, as if you are trying to move a mountain with a spoon. We end up with questions like these:“This person’s poor choices led him to this situation. Why should I help?”
“I’m only one person, and I can barely keep my head above water. How can I do anything for others?”
“The poor have so many obstacles. Even if I give help in one area, won’t there just be 20 other problems that keep them from making progress?”
“I gave my friend $50 when she was broke. Now she expects it as a regular thing. Doesn’t that just show I shouldn’t try to help, because it creates expectation and dependency?”
“People ask me for help because I’ve got a little bit of money. They don’t realize that if I gave to every charity that asked, soon I would be as broke as they are! Isn’t saying no to everything the safest way?”
These questions are very important. They come to us from our need for protection. We fear getting taken, getting used, and getting drained. But that fear can create instinctive responses toward those who need help. It can make us lash out when we should be giving compassion. It can make us judge, simply to protect our boundaries. There is a better way.
The truth is that engaging with difficult situations is, well, difficult. There is a right and a wrong way to help. There are tools and right ways of thinking that can help us to maintain our proper emotional – and financial – boundaries, while helping others. The wisest thinkers advise that we give from our place of abundance; that is to say, if we have education but no money, we tutor. If we have free time, we can volunteer. If we have money, we can donate.
This giving from a place of surplus, not sacrifice, can be challenging because it contradicts our assumptions. We in the West are all familiar with the story of Christ exhorting his followers to give up all their wordly possessions to the poor. Perhaps because of this example, we think that if we are unwilling to sacrifice, we are also unworthy to help and to give. It’s just not true.
Giving from our place of abundance means being able and willing to say no. It means having proper boundaries, and having discretion about which kinds of help are, in fact, most helpful.
When we add these tools to our emotional toolkit – including, and most importantly, the ability to say no – we feel more confident and competent. In the end, knowing when and how to say no gives us the freedom to engage, support, and say yes.
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