The last few years, I’ve read countless articles and a couple books about how to help people well.  about how charity can actually hurt people more than it benefits them.  about how short-term trips may cause more damage to the economy and organization you work with.

This realization causes serious cognitive dissonance in my life.  I want to help but I’m scared that I’ll hurt someone in the process.  And I have.  I’ve been a part of several projects and worked with a number of organizations before I was conscious of my actions’ consequences.  That freaks me out.  To what extent did my trip to Haiti cost the orphanage we stayed and worked at?  How did I make those parents feel when I “adopted” their family for Christmas?  How did handing out food to the same people year after year help them provide for themselves?
It’s these thoughts that haunt me.  these thoughts that hold me back and make me ponder why me?  what can I offer?  what difference can I make?  and how?  how do I go about this and cause the least amount of damage in my wake?


photo credit: Jason Schuller

So, these books and articles were helpful by making me aware and mindful…but they also made me timid and anxious about helping people.  Have you ever thought about these things?  How your best intentions of benevolence may be received as maleficence?

Have you also thought about how not acting on the needs that you see may be contributing just as much?  We’re in this awful place of tension.  It’s hard to process and work through.

You see hungry people so you want to give them food…but you also know that handouts encourage dependency and that’s not terribly helpful now is it?  but there are hungry people?!  what do you do about it?  I don’t know.  I really don’t.  I guess you do what feels right to you; what gives you the least amount of cognitive dissonance.  Could you have ruined someone’s life with one meal?  no, probably not.  Can you learn from that experience and modify your actions for the next need you run across.  Of course!

What I’m saying is, it does no good in the world to spend all your time thinking, theorizing, and strategizing how to help your cause because you don’t want to mess up.  Those things all have value, they do, but I believe we must act as well.  And we learn so much, maybe more, from those actions.  From the mistakes we make.  At what cost, you may ask?  That depends on the situation.  But we can’t sit in a room and account for every possible consequence.  That’s not feasible if you really want to make a difference for this cause you care so deeply about.

Maybe making a wake is part of the process.  This sounds so cruel (please don’t take this as an extreme) but maybe hurting others now can help you become a better helper.  Maybe you have to be part of a flawed process, in order to see the flaws.  To gain a better perspective about the people and the situation you’re working with.  To walk through it with someone and understand how the process made them feel.  To ask better questions of yourself and the community you’re working with.  Notice I said with, not for.

There are so many obstacles that could get in our way.  so many.  but we have to work around them.  we have to get over our fears and do one small thing to start with.  Soon enough, these small things will add up to make this great wake behind us.


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