A few years ago, I was sitting with a group of young women in a Starbucks, and we were approached by a very desperate woman. In perhaps her early forties, she had a quick, nervous manner about her, and a deep-throated voice belying a lifetime of cigarette smoke. Her skin was weathered, and her dull, lifeless hair was hastily pulled into a sophomoric ponytail.
She told a sad tale about her car or her phone or her boyfriend or something….and now she needed a phone to call somewhere for help. The girls’ compassion grew and they probed for further details. As the woman gladly unfolded her tale of woe, it became clear that even the phone call she wanted to make wasn’t going to do much good. Someone handed her a phone, and as she slipped off, the girls began to whisper.
“Do you think we could…?”
“Maybe if we…”
I sat in a cold corner and shook my head. “Don’t bother,” I said, my own cynicism shocking me. “You can’t help her. Not really. She’s where she is because of who she is.”
My voice of reason quickly trumped their compassion, and the woman finished her call. She handed the phone back, and then left our lives.
But, I wondered about my cynicism. Was it reason, or was it just judgment? It was not lost on me that I sounded like the cliché, ”Get a job bum.” Had I become that person? Certainly people had helped me when I needed it, so why couldn’t I find love enough to help someone else?
About a year later, a young man came into our lives who seemed to have the worst luck you have ever seen. Nothing worked for him. When his stroke of luck eventually left him with nowhere to go but the streets, my family was moved by compassion and took him in. We offered him every resource we had…which, being modest people ourselves, wasn’t much. But we covered the basics…a couch to sleep on, free access to the kitchen, a pre-paid cell phone, computer/internet access for job search, and a ride to job interviews and work.
He stayed three weeks and was drama the whole way. There lies on top of lies, manipulative ploys for money, rides and other resources, double talk stories that made no sense, and even a few screaming matches. He eventually got kicked out for drug use.
It took us months to sort out the mess he left. Now, eight months later, he is living out of his car…which is a step up from where he was last month. So, what was the point of all that drama? What was the point of all of the money we poured into his life to keep him off the streets in the first place? What good did it do? Things ended so badly he refuses to be in the same room with us…and quite honestly…that’s fine with all of us. So, did we help him?
As I think about this situation, I start to wonder if you can really help anyone. For every sad eyed person behind a cardboard sign, there are stories like this. We are supposed to have compassion on people on the down and out. But, experience shows that these people are where they are, because of a myriad of really bad choices, and because they have burned the bridges of everyone who tried to help them. When you try to help them, they just drain you of your own resources, and then burn you out like they have burned everyone else in their lives. And then you know exactly why they are where they are…at the expense of a lot of drama, tangled relationships, and money. If you do it in the name of Christ, you muddy his name with every self-preserving boundary you try to set.
But, at the same time, does a lying thief still get hungry? Is a January night in your car somehow less cold just because you have been known to sell your food stamp card for drug money? How much should a person have to suffer for needlessly walking off a job when they have an eight month pregnant wife at home? And who but God should decide?
So, how do you have compassion? How do you help people? And how do you avoid becoming cynical and hardened at people who truly need help? And what if pour yourself out to help people, at the end of it, they just go right back to where they were in the first place? Can you really help people?