On the delicate matter of helping without shaming.

Money is not everything… until you don’t have it. Until you are unable to provide your child with what they deserve. Until you can’t afford the right medical care. Until you know the taste of hunger. Until you must look someone in the eye and ask them for help.

“Money is very important. Especially when you don’t have a single penny.”
~ Erich Maria Remarque

The holiday season is approaching by leaps and bounds, and it’s the time of the year when most people lean towards more charitable behavior than throughout the rest of the year. That’s why it’s also the best time to talk about the difference between being helpful and helping.

If these sound exactly the same to you, just bear with me for a little while longer.

The definition of charity is providing voluntary help, commonly in the financial form, to those in need. Let’s say, someone requires our support and we give it to them. In essence, there’s nothing wrong in that. All is good in the world.

What is missing, though, is to emphasize that helping in this way only involves a passive transfer of resources to an individual who is incapable (for various reasons) of helping themselves, thus entirely dependent on such help. Here, we should be able to start sensing what can possibly go wrong in our endeavors to help other people. Either we encourage dependency — mostly with those who have little interest in empowering themselves in the near future, or — and that’s even worse, in my opinion — we accentuate dependency of those who have no other options left, even though they desperately desire to be able to stand on their own feet.

When someone finds themselves in a situation where they rely upon your financial assistance, whether it is a stranger or someone you care about, and at the same time they wish for nothing more than to get up off the ground as soon as possible, decide for yourself, to begin with, what your motivation is to provide what the person is asking. Or even better, what they are not asking yet, if you would like to spare them the unpleasantness of coming to you first.

Why are you doing this?

Moral obligation? Social pressure? A need to feel good about yourself?

Do you love that person and sharing whatever you can is the most natural thing on Earth?

Do you want to please God?

Is your conscience not clean?

Are you awfully bad at saying no?

Whichever is the case, always know what drives you to give up a part of what is yours, whether it is your money, your energy, or your time. Because a moment may come when you will feel entitled to receive something in return, and then it’s advisable to remind yourself that it was you, and only you, who decided of your own free will to make someone’s life easier.

Most people are by all means grateful for receiving help without being made to remember it. And whenever there’s an opportunity, they will happily give back. Not only as a way of saying thank you. But also for themselves. Because when I can give back, I’m not dependent anymore. I’m free.

So let’s return to the question of what the difference between helping and being helpful is. When I help — and especially, when I make a point of it — I’m telling the person: “You need me.” When I’m being helpful, I simply acknowledge: “You need something and I can give it to you.”

We all need things. One needs more of this, one needs more of that. Needing something to secure survival or avoid (material/mental/social) pain is less humbling than needing someone to achieve the same.

Now, you can object that when you care about someone, it’s perfectly normal for you to need each other. No doubt it is. However, you’re also dealing with a person whose sense of self-worth may have suffered some, smaller or bigger, cracks, and a part of your job of being helpful is to do your best to not make them feel disadvantaged, weak, and needy.

Here’s is a simple checklist of what to pay attention to when providing (financial) support:

  • Abstain from saying things like: “I’m happy to help.” or “It’s normal to help.” Even though it’s probably just you trying to be nice, it brings nothing to the person other than stressing out loud what they already know. There are many other alternatives of how to respond to the words of appreciation, such as, “No worries,” “Not a problem at all,” “Don’t even mention it,” “Anytime,” which express your willingness to selflessly contribute much better.
  • Don’t ask too many details. Most of the time, you don’t need to hear the whole story to be able to decide if you can and want to offer what the other person needs. By forcing them to defend themselves in your eyes, you’re merely underlying your superiority within the situation. In particular, if what they need is money, don’t make them tell you how much they’ve got left, why they need a certain amount, and how they are going to spend it. Respect the fact that they are adult people capable of rational decisions.
  • Don’t tell other people about it. (No-brainer!)
  • Don’t bring it up for no apparent reason. If you’re borrowing money, it’s important to set the terms of repayment at the very beginning. Don’t be shy to ask right there but don’t keep asking unnecessarily before the time to pay back is due. If it happens that the person knowingly ignores their debt, or keeps asking for more with no intention of repaying, then try not to involve emotions when dealing with it. There’s still a chance that there is some sort of explanation lurking at the back, which they might be reluctant to share with you right away.

In summary, if you can give, give, if you can’t, don’t. No drama. No fake graciousness or pretentious understanding when unasked for.

Don’t help. Be helpful.

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