There’s a reason you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others if your plane is going down.
Back in Toronto there was a homeless man who would always hang outside my local supermarket.
We were both creatures of habit; I would go shopping in the last 30 minutes before close and he would always be in his spot at the northwest corner of Church and College streets, often wearing the same tattered outfit I saw him in the week prior.
Our conversations were pretty repetitive too.
“Got any change, boss?” he would ask.
“Sorry bro, I got no cash on me,” I would respond.
And on we’d go with our separate lives.
One time I did happen to have some change (the above excuse wasn’t a lie, I hardly ever carry physical cash on me, for a bunch of different reasons) and was feeling in a giving mood, so I handed this guy the money I had in my pocket — around a dollar.
I don’t remember exactly what was said but he insinuated that if I could afford to buy groceries (I was leaving the store at this point) I could afford to give him more than a dollar.
I told him all I had was my debit card.
Without missing a beat, he responds with the location of the nearest ATM and suggests we go over there for me to withdraw some cash.
I’m not a confrontational person, so I mumbled something about how it’s unfathomable people could be so ungrateful in the face of charity and went on my way.
It’s about three years later and I’m just beginning to realize why that encounter left a 23-year-old, strapped-for-cash me with such a bad taste in my mouth.
It isn’t because I’m opposed to charity (I’m not, in fact, I see it as one of the backbones of Western society, along with due process and free speech).
It isn’t because I believe that people should fix their own problems (we all need a helping hand sometimes).
It’s because instead of recognizing the act for what it was, this guy went straight from a “give me money” to a “that’s not enough, give me more” attitude.
Another similar story: there was a guy who stood outside the 7-Eleven and would ask people for change, “to buy a coffee.”
One of the saddest things I ever saw was him arguing with the store clerk around 3 a.m. as he tried to get cash back for the food (not just coffee) that someone had bought him — can you say ungrateful?
I don’t know what word you’d call the emotion that I felt seeing that (perhaps something similar to pathos) but it’s one of the most depressing ones I’ve ever felt.
It did, however, inspire a revelation of sorts.
There are people who want (read: expect) your help, and there are others that need it.
Once more for the people in the back: if you spend all your time trying to help others you’ll wake up one day and realize it’s you who needs the assistance.
Any lifeguard knows you always approach a drowning person from the back; more often than not they will instinctively try to pull the person rescuing them down — it isn’t intentional, but a panicked individual in survival mode isn’t exactly a bastion of reason.
It’s the same with people. While some want help, others will drag you down with them if you let them.
While some will appreciate goodwill, others will push the envelope to see just how much they can get from you — we all have that one friend who has no desire to better themselves and who seems to create stagnation in the lives of those around them.
It’s not that I’m saying don’t help others — just don’t de-prioritize your own interests and well-being to a degree that’s unhealthy in doing so.
If I were to give $5 to every person that asked me for money in Toronto, I would have had to choose between paying rent and eating on a monthly basis (something that, ironically, could put me into a similar housing situation as my disheveled counterpart).
But the fact is that I would rather be able to help out the odd individual than become homeless myself after marginally improving the lives of everyone I see over a six-month span.
You can’t buy someone coffee if your fridge is empty, just like you can’t pay someone’s rent if yours hasn’t been accounted for.
I realize now, years later, that what frustrated me about this man’s response to my approximately dollar in change wasn’t that he got angry.
It wasn’t that he was begging for money, or even that he guilted me about the amount I gave him.
It’s that he was pressuring me to give more than I could.
That’s what I mean when I say save yourself.
There’s that quote: “be kind, for everyone is fighting a silent battle.”
Always remember that you are part of that everyone — charity only works if you’ve got something to give.