Enabler or Legalist

homelessWhen I stopped at the grocery store today there was a heavily tattooed young man soliciting assistance in the parking lot. I tried to sum him up quickly while I pretended not to see him. He seemed strong, healthy and able to work – so I headed into the store without hearing his story. That is the cold, calculating side of my personality and quite frankly I don’t always like it.

Put a group of suffering kids in front of me from Haiti, Zimbabwe or some other developing country and I will take the shoes off my feet and the shirt off my back (though you really don’t want to visualize that). How do we go about effectively helping those who need help and telling lazy, deadbeats to get a job? Here are few lessons I learned along the way:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask a few relevant questions. Someone who is in need, emotionally or financially won’t have a problem with answering a few questions. My primary purpose in asking questions is to watch body language and see if they lie to me. If I can’t believe their answers to simple questions, how can I believe anything else they tell me.
  2. Err on the side of compassion. If I am going to make a mistake in reference to the character of an individual, I can at least give them the benefit of the doubt. So what is the harm if the guy soaks me for a couple of burgers and a Coke.
  3. When you do help – try to deal with the problem and not contribute to the source (don’t enable bad behavior). I have driven folks to McDonald’s and bought them dinner (especially if they have kids), but I am very, very careful about giving money that will be used for smokes or brews, well, except for that time the guy ewith the sign that said, “need money for beer.”

When it comes to life challenges that go deeper than the immediate needs mentioned above, it is more difficult. If my spouse has an alcohol problem I don’t help the situation by overlooking her addiction. I have to confront the problem head on. I can be compassionate, but firm in my approach.

On the other hand we need to be careful not to jump to conclusion, or become so cold and hard-hearted that we write everyone off. For example: John has been sober for 20 years and falls off the wagon and someone says, “I don’t know why we help that guy, he is nothing but a drunk.” So much for getting any credit for 20 years of sobriety.

How do we know if we are helping, enabling, or just being a cold-hearted jerk? Time will usually tell. If you err on the side of compassion, but see the same behavior being repeated, then you are drifting towards enabling that behavior. If you drive by the lady selling papers on the street corner and then see her two hours later at Burger King with 3 kids in tow we realize our heart may be getting a little too hard.

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