Many years ago, during the period of time I refer to as my Dark Days, I worked in a small indie coffee shop. There were a few other indie coffee shops in the surrounding area, and we were really the opposite of hip at the time, so it was fairly slow there. We had our morning rush of office workers who didn’t want to wait in the long lines at other places, a few daytime regulars, and our nighttime crowd who hung out until close.
Most of the people I saw there, I got to know by name. Because my then-fiance would stop in to check on me a few times a day, they got to know a bit about my situation at the time. For most people, their first reaction was to try and offer me help.
Without getting into much detail, I was in a relationship that was highly abusive in multiple ways. I wasn’t able to eat properly, was constantly tired, my hair had started thinning from malnutrition and stress, and I was working at least 6 days a week and sometimes up to 14 hours a day.
Most of the people I talked to throughout the day offered me some sort of help. For the most part, it was little things. One woman would offer to buy me sandwiches on my break. A gentleman was always offering me cigarettes so that I wouldn’t have to go through mine on my very limited budget. Others just let me sit and talk to them when the shop was slow.
One well-meaning woman went too far. This woman knew my mother, and my mother did not know where I was working at the time. I was not living at home, and was not exactly on speaking terms with my family. This woman, from talking to both myself and my mother, knew this. She knew that I was not mentally in a place where having long talks with my mother would help my situation, and that my mother seeing me in the state I was in would be of no help to her.
Still, she felt the need to go to my mother. She told the state I was in, where I was working, what my schedule was there, and anything else she could think to tell her. She told her bits of things, out of context, that she had overheard me talking about with other customers and friends. She told her things she thought about my situation, without know much about my situation.
Basically, this woman got my mother all worked up into a tizzy, told her exactly where she could find me, and didn’t tell me any of this. I only found out when my mother showed up at the coffee shop one day. In her mind, this is how that day would’ve gone:
My mother would walk into the coffee shop during a slow period, and see me standing behind the counter. All of our fights would be completely forgotten the second we saw each other, and I would run to her arms. We’d hug, we’d cry, I would beg her to take me away from my awful situation and we’d leave right that very second.
Magical, isn’t it?
That’s not what happened, though. Instead, my mother showed up one day while I was working. We had an awkward hello, she ordered a coffee, and sat down while I served other people. We made some forced small-talk about my siblings and dad, and then the hushed fighting started. How could I disappoint them like this? Why did I have to be so stubborn? Why couldn’t I just leave my fiance because my parents don’t like him?
That was in April. My mother and I didn’t talk again until well into the summer. Any progress we had made in our relationship, no matter how little it was at the point, was gone.
That’s the problem with being well-meaning: you have a certain idea of how things will work once you fix them for someone. You don’t take into account how the other parties will be affected, what harms you may be doing, how those you’re “helping” will perceive your “help”, or if your help is even wanted. People who are well-meaning usually come off as meaning well for themselves, not for the greater good.
Now, that’s not to say you should stop helping people all-together. Remember, I had a lot of people help me out in that time. There were times when I probably would’ve have eaten for days at a time if it weren’t for the kindness of others. There are some big differences between help and well-meaning help, though.
1) Does the person want any help right now?
Sometimes, people just want to work things out for themselves. They may not think their situation is as dire as you seem to. Or maybe they’re stubborn and determined to pull themselves out of whatever situation they’re in.
Jumping in to help a person who doesn’t want help can scream “you’re a failure and can’t do this on your own” to them, no matter your intentions. If someone is really trying to pull their life together on their own, and are proud of the progress they’ve been making (no matter how small that progress seems to you), you can’t just jump in and try to take control. If they don’t want any help right now, you can’t force any on them.
2) What kind of help do they want right now?
In my Dark Days, I would never turn down free food. At one point, I had to make a box of macaroni and cheese last me 3 days because I had no other food in the house for myself. There were times when I actually ate out of a donut shop’s dumpster to survive. If someone had come up to me and offered to buy me a burger from McDonald’s, I’d have to resist the urge to tackle them in a giant bear hug. Food was the one thing I always seemed to need.
Do you know what did me no good at all? Money. Part of my problem at the time was financial abuse in my relationship, and I had to turn over all money to my fiance so he could “track” my finances. He came with me to cash my paycheques, he gave me a small allowance, and he needed to know where every penny I spent went. If I came home with any extra money, or bought things that couldn’t be accounted for with the meager amount of money I was allotted, I was in deep horse turds.
I know that one of my friends is always in need of socks and shoes. I can’t afford to be buying him shoes every time he loses his, but I can get a 20-pack of socks for $10 at Giant Tiger and buy a dozen pairs of good thick socks at Dollarama to keep in my car for him. Giving him money to buy socks is not going to get him socks. There’s very few places to shop for clothes in the area he stays in, and most places don’t like to let homeless people in, especially when they’re a bit stinky. If he tells me he needs socks, I give him socks. If he says he needs a toque, or gloves, or a clean t-shirt, then that’s what I’ll find him. Giving him money for these things isn’t going to get them for him.
3) What kind of help are you willing to give?
I will tell you right now, if it were financially possible I would put a roof over Strength’s head in a heartbeat. I would fill his closet with clean clothes, fill his kitchen with food, and make sure he got any help or opportunity his gigantic heart desires. I would make sure he was safe, and warm, and didn’t have to ever worry about find a spot in an alleyway to sleep in in the middle of winter.
I know that’s not something I can afford to do.
Here’s the thing, though: there are things that I may be able to afford to do, but just aren’t practical or helpful to either of us. As much as I want to bring that boy home with him, let him shower and do laundry, and them wrap him in a blanket like a giant burrito to watch movies all night with AAB and the kitten crew while I cook mass amounts of food for them, that’s not going to help any in the long run. I cannot risk losing my home because he brings drugs with him, or his drug-related mood swings cause problems with the neighbours. I can’t move him in with me, because I know I cannot leave a meth addict that no one else in the house knows or trusts alone there while I am at work.
In order to take care of him like that, I would practically have to restructure my life around him. I would have to keep tabs on him, bring him to work with me when I’m at the library, find somewhere for him to go while I’m working at the store. I would have to be financially responsible for his rent, his food, and even help out gathering up basic belongings and clothing for him. That goes well beyond what I am willing and able to do right now.
What I can do, which he says he appreciates, is what I do for him now. I bring him warm clothes and old blankets in the winter. I take him out for coffee, try to feed him. I keep bags of snacks in my car for him. I’ve taken him out in my car to go out for coffee, just so he can rest his feet and get out of the cold (but there are some massive rules when he’s in the car, like he has to turn out all his pockets and bags to show me he has nothing illegal with him).
Now, if I won the lottery tomorrow, it would be a whole different story. I have a well thought-out plan to help quite a few people, with him being the first. But until that happens, I have to set my limits and only do what I am willing and able to do.
4) Why are you helping them?
There is nothing wrong with enjoying that warm, fuzzy feeling you get in your heart when you help someone. Good deeds give people good feelings. If you’re helping someone out of the goodness of your heart, then revel in that warm, fuzzy feeling. That warm, fuzzy feeling is pure goodness.
I do know some people who can’t lend someone a quarter for the phone without taking pictures of the good deed and cross-posting it on every piece of social media they have accounts on. They spend weeks hyping up a charity event, only to have that event do more for them in the public eye than it does for those it was supposed to help.
People like this are in it purely so others will look at them and start heaping on praise. Yes, they may do some good for others, but it can come at a price. They could monopolize fundraising for a certain charity, only to do a poor job of it. Their lack of commitment to a cause can drive others away from it. Or, others could associate them directly with that cause, and not volunteer because they don’t want to deal with them.
I’m stuck with this dilemma right now. There are a few events I’ve signed up for that benefit a certain cause, all for different local charities. For some of these, I will be volunteering with two gentlemen who are very vocal on social media about their activism and charity work. One, I am thrilled to be working with, and others have asked me about him. Yes, he posts a lot online, but he’s doing so just to draw attention to causes. He’s spoken on TV and in the media about things, and declined interviews for others for fear that it draws more attention to him than the message at hand.
The other gentleman…….. well, he’s very active online. More than once (or a dozen times) when I’ve mentioned to people that he will be at an event, they’ve responded with eye rolls. He grabs the spotlight, even when he’s trying to shove others into it. In the beginning people were impressed with the work he was doing. Right now, a lot of the people I’ve talked to are just sick of him. Sadly, these same people don’t want to be associated with events he is a part of, which is hurting my personal fundraising goals.
Do it for the feels, not the fame.
At the end of the day, Sunshine, you can mean well without being well-meaning. You can do a world of good, and make life around you shine as bright as you. You can bring happiness and joy to people’s lives, make a difference in the lives around you, put smiles on faces. You can be the good in the world that you want to see. Just please, make sure that good is good for all the right reasons, and in all the right ways.