By Kevin M
A family living in a McMansion loses their home to foreclosure. An overbearing manager earning a six figure salary loses his job in a department shut down. The (former) most prosperous family in the neighborhood is forced to close down their business for lack of sales; there’s a for sale sign on their front lawn. A couple who drove high end cars and traveled often is facing bankruptcy. A women in old clothes approaches us in a shopping center, tells us her husband has lost his job several months ago, and they have no money to feed their children.
How do we react?
To the family who lost their McMansion: They had no business buying a house that large.
To the overbearing manager: It’s about time he got his—I remember when…
To the former most prosperous family in the neighborhood: They always thought they were better than everyone else—maybe this will teach them a lesson!
To the couple who lived the good life: It serves them right. They lived like money was no object, and now they’re in bankruptcy; they should have saved their money like I did.
To the women in the shopping center asking for money for food: I don’t have any money with me. (She’ll probably use it to buy liquor or drugs if I give it to her.) Get a job! Isn’t there an ordinance against panhandling?
No, these aren’t everyone’s reactions; maybe they aren’t anything you’ve ever thought about. But a disturbing number of people express similar opinions every day in reaction to news of personal hardship. I hear such talk from many people, and see it in readers comments on weblogs, where people can often express themselves anonymously.
Why do we react that way?
In an attempt to identify and challenge entrenched, but often unexamined attitudes toward those facing hardship, I’m listing some of what I believe to be the causes of the mindset driving the hardness.
By blaming people for the troubles they face we…
Believe we have the power to avoid the same fate. With this thinking, we nurture the idea that we’re too smart, strong, hard working and well prepared to have any of that happen to us.
Believe that such people are getting their just reward for their blatant misbehavior, even if we don’t know specifically what that behavior might be. Here we think…My neighbor is in trouble because he did some stupid/short sighted/ridiculous/illegal. But that won’t happen to me; I’m a good person.
Protect the idea that The System, the world, is a just place. I’m not blowing smoke on this one. Check out the Just-World Theory. It’s actually a human belief set to support the idea of the existence of a just world by transferring blame for troubles to the victim. Many times we don’t want to believe that the world can be as cruel as it often appears, and accepting the idea that it might actually be the case might be more than our equilibriums can handle.
Relieve ourselves of the burden to help. We think…Since his troubles are all of his own making, I don’t have to help, and I don’t have to feel bad about not helping either. MY life is good.
By relieving ourselves from the burden to help we preserve our resources to protect ourselves. We remind ourselves that “it’s every man for himself”, and that’s the natural order. We’re doing what’s responsible, what we’re even supposed to do!
Such thinking can cause us to turn a blind eye to those in need. Remember, we’re not talking about giving money to distant charities here—that’s a different topic entirely. Because of economic conditions, we’re talking about people in our everyday lives—neighbors, former coworkers, acquaintances, people in our communities and sometimes even family and friends. If we don’t care enough to help those in our immediate orbits, who will we help? And who will help us when our time comes?
But “judge not, lest you be judged”
We often have little sympathy for those who have failed to prepare in areas of life where we have. It can give a sense of smugness—and maybe vindication—when the crisis we’ve prepared for does hit, taking down those who had less foresight and discipline.
Saving and having money is most assuredly one of the best paths we can take in life, financially speaking. But some of the most hardened hearts are beating in the chests of people who have large bank accounts. Where money troubles are concerned, it’s easy to have a sense of insulation, or even of invincibility, perhaps especially when the money saved was diligently accumulated as a result of consistent saving habits. Taken to the extreme, it can produce a sense of superiority.
But not every crisis that hits us can be solved by money. What if through hard work and discipline you managed to accumulate a bank roll that’s well into six figures, but at the age of 40 you develop cancer? Now you did everything right on the financial side of your life, but in the process you developed some bad habits in regard to your health. You’re a light smoker, a substantial social drinker, have a warm spot in your palette for fried foods, not one to exercise and you’re easily 30 pounds over weight.
How would if feel if the physically fit in your world—those who didn’t smoke or drink or indulge in fried foods, who exercised religiously and kept their weight at medically desirable levels—refused you any help since you obviously didn’t care enough to take better care of your health? What if they made derogatory remarks to others, confirming that you didn’t deserve either help or sympathy because you didn’t do anything to help yourself when you had the chance? What if some of those comments got back to you?
The sword of judgment cuts in many directions.
So how can we help?
None of us is better off because our neighbor lost his job, or because a free spending acquaintance lost his house in foreclosure. We should be mourning these developments, not roasting marshmallows over them.
Start by asking “what would I need if I were in the same situation?” It’s called empathy, and we all need to have a large dose of it. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s hit on hard times—whether or not you can imagine it, next time could be your time. How would you want people to react to you?
When you see a person having financial troubles, never assume you know everything that caused it. Maybe they did save diligently, but the money just ran out after nearly a year of unemployment. Maybe while they were living well—driving nice cars, traveling the world—they were also sending money to a terminally ill relative who lived a lot longer than expected.
Kind, encouraging words can go a long way. In a materialistic culture like ours, self esteem can evaporate with a lost income or a lost home. So can public status. All people desperately need and want to be treated with dignity; that doesn’t always happen when your finances crash. Also, be sensitive to those in crisis; talking about your money, your investments or your upcoming Caribbean vacation around someone who can barely put food on the table is in poor taste.
Be a friend to someone you hardly know. And don’t abandon friends who are in trouble. In any crisis, financial or otherwise, people need to know that others care. Invite them out for lunch or a cup of coffee and some chat time. A minister at my former church said “always put people ahead of circumstances”. Amen?
If you have the resources, give some cash from time to time. Or gift cards for food or clothing. Give them something that might enable them to have a night out for fun—diversion is good medicine. A small amount of money can go a long way to help a person or family in crisis. As well it can create or cement a friendship.
If you don’t have the finances to help with money, you can cook and send over a meal, or watch the children of a person who needs to go on a job interview. You might also consider helping to make phone calls for a job search, being a reference or introducing them to any networks you belong to. None of that will cost you any money, but all of it will help in some way.
You certainly can’t help everyone who’s in need, but you can help a few—those who are close to you or who happen across your path. What does it say about you if you’re giving and helping while others are judging and turning a blind eye?