(or, Charity Begins at Home)
I often refer to a concept I call the "Unwritten Social Contract" in describing one's obligations to society. I cannot point to a specific recitation of this idea (it is, after all unwritten) but the concept underlies many religions, governments, and social theories. Perhaps the idea is better expressed somewhere in text. If you have a citation to it, please let me know.
The basic idea, which is often lost on many people today, is this:
"Each individual in a society has an underlying obligation, to the best of his ability, and before all else, to take care of his own basic needs, both immediate and for the foreseeable future, before attending to the needs of others."
Now some folks might say this is "selfish" and not altruistic. However, as we shall see, altruism can sometimes lead to all sorts of problems when people fail to take care of themselves first. But the basic concept is sound. You may have heard an example of this concept expressed whenever you fly on an airplane:
"In the event of cabin depressurization, an oxygen mask will drop down from the compartment above you. Secure the mask to your face using the straps provided. Air will flow into the mask even if the bag does not inflate. Do not attempt to assist other passengers or children until you have secured your own mask."
The concept is simple, isn't it? If you go around trying to "help others" before you put on your own oxygen mask, not only will you not get around to helping those others, you yourself will end up in need of help (adding to the problem) and probably end up blocking the exit with your corpse. In an emergency situation, the best thing to do is make sure that you are OK before you run off trying to help someone else. It is not selfish, it is the best thing you can do to help others. You cannot help someone by bleeding all over them.
But aside from plane crashes, the basic concept applies to everyday living. Each citizen in our society should make sure their oxygen mask is secure before they run off trying to help others. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, this is not the case, and we end up with more people falling in the aisles, adding to the problem, not reducing it.
Simply stated, each person should insure that their own needs are met - that is to say, food, clothing and shelter, not just for today, but for the foreseeable future. By doing so, a person insures that they are not a burden to society, either in the short haul or the long haul.
However, many folks barely scrape by these days, living "paycheck to paycheck" and failing to save for retirement. By doing so, they place an additional burden on our society now, and in the future. And yet oftentimes, these are the sort of folks who expend considerable energy on activities not related to their basic survival.
A classic example is the political junkie. I have known of number of such folks, from both ends of the spectrum, who will spend hours arguing politics and listening to talk radio, convinced that their opinions on every single issue are making a difference in society. In their personal lives, however, they lag behind. Some are living with parents or other relatives, or failing to properly support themselves or fund their retirement. If asked, they would say "How can I worry about my own affairs while Bush is in the White House?" If they are right-wing, they use the same cry, but with a different slant.
People like this arguably have some mental health issues, and that is tragic. But they are failing, on a basic level, to fulfill their social obligation to take care of themselves before seeing to the needs of others. Working for a living and saving enough for retirement takes a lot of effort. So it is not surprising that many folks don't have time to be political junkies and obsess about politics. They are taking care of their own needs first, which is more important that their "views on the issues" which are really irrelevant anyway. The only opinions you have that count are your vote and your dollars. Ironically, many political junkies do not vote or contribute to political campaigns. But they do waste an enormous amount of energy.
Another example is the church enthusiast. Some churches want you to tithe 10% of your income to the church. This is a staggering amount of money, considering that the government is lucky to get 15% from most citizens, and they have a lot more overhead than a church. While it is a fine and wonderful thing to give to a church, be sure you are taking care of yourself first. Oftentimes, it is the poorest segments of our society that give such large percentages of their income (tithing often viewed as the baseline donation, with additional funds donated above and beyond that for special needs) while failing to provide for themselves. In one instance, I've seen where a parishioner gave not only the 10% tithing to a "Mega-Church," but donated tens of thousands of dollars for church windows and construction - only to later end up destitute and broke. Needless to say, once they ran out of money, the "Mega-Church" stopped answering their phone calls.
I've met others who are volunteer junkies. While they themselves are poor and barely getting by, they spend an enormous amount of their time volunteering for "good works" - feeding the homeless and such, or donating large amounts of money to charities. We tend to laud such folks, as helping others in need is the penultimate Christian good. But if in doing so, you place yourself in jeopardy, are you really helping? And if by "helping" another, you are enabling an addict, is it really help? As we say in the 12-step programs, sometimes you have to let people hit rock bottom before they will help themselves.
Note that the largest health problem among the poor in America is not malnourishment, but obesity. And yet television charities (often bloated with their own overhead) implore us to donate to help the hungry in America. We live in a staggeringly wealthy country, by world standards. The average American, living below the poverty line in the US has a home, a television, air conditioning, a car, and a kitchen with refrigerator and a stove, and usually a microwave - and a life expectancy of 60 years. While this is 10 years shorter than average, the average "poor" person in America is also more likely to be a smoker or have other bad health habits. Do these folks really need your help, or do they need to spend more time fulfilling their end of the unwritten social contract?
The average African living below the poverty line hasn't eaten in 2 days, lives on less than a dollar a day, and has a life expectancy of less than 40 years. Arguably the African needs your help much more than "poor Americans". But some African activists are even questioning the effectiveness of altruistic American aid to their countries. Providing emergency food relief allows us to feel better about ourselves and allows Bill and Melinda Gates to claim the moral high ground (after holding the world hostage to a second-rate operating system). But in the long run, such aid does little to address the underlying problems in Africa - corruption, greed, tribalism, overpopulation, and the like. Meddling by industrialized nations has not helped, but hurt, most African countries.
Another example is what I call the "helpful Grandma", although this can happen to grandparents or other relatives) of either gender. Grandma is retired and has a little money set aside. Her Grandchildren are "in trouble" in her estimation, and at every opportunity, she intervenes in their child rearing, usually providing money for gifts, school, cars, rent, utilities, or other "needs". The children (parents of the Grandchildren) are often also the recipients of such largess, and have mixed feelings about it. While they resent the meddling and control Grandma has in their life, they get all too used to the "free money" being doled out. Unfortunately, Grandma often ends up running out of money in her old age, and then tries to put the squeeze on other children for support. Of course, the children and grandchildren she has passed money out to don't have any - they have learned only to be dependent, not how to take care of themselves. So when Grandma needs $100,000 for assisted living, she doesn't have it - nor do the kids she spoiled by giving that money to. Grandma would have been better off keeping her cash for her own retirement and leaving an inheritance later on, rather than trying to spoil, manipulate and control her children and Grandchildren.
This last example illustrates the sometimes evil nature of altruism. We like to think by "doing good deeds" that we are being unselfish and good. But often the real psychological motivations for "doing good" can be based in a deep sickness. "Volunteer Junkies" will never fail to mention to you how much they volunteer and what good they are doing (and then bitch, bitch, bitch about how they are unappreciated). A part of what drives them to volunteer is no different than what drives someone to buy a Cadillac. They want the ability to say "I'm Better Than You." It is a common need among human beings - to have status, perceived status, to impress people you know, or don't even know. We all do it. The volunteer junkie does it in part to achieve moral superiority. That, and it is cheaper than a Cadillac.
Don't get me wrong, volunteering is a fine and wonderful thing. But examine your motives sometime, perhaps one night at 3:00 in the morning, if you can't get to sleep. What you find might surprise and even repulse you. Do you feel superior to, or talk down to, the people you are volunteering to help? Do you look down at, or criticize those who do not volunteer? Do you really, in your heart of hearts, think that volunteering makes a you a better person? If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, you are missing the point.
Note that I have discussed this issue in the past, and the response I get from some quarters is quite indignant and self-righteous. "Well, I'm glad that I don't have such a shallow view of the world as you!" they cry, neatly proving my point. They view their own perceived altruism as a form of moral superiority to others in the world. It is, in a way, a loser's game. Folks who play that card are often those who are less successful in the world, and they argue, bitterly, that those who do succeed are those who "sold out" or otherwise compromised their morality. They may be less well off, but at least they have superior morals! Ironically, Christianity would seem to argue otherwise - that one who lauds their own moral superiority is in fact, less moral.
For example, a friend of mine runs a small theater that is not very successful. It never turns a profit, but instead has to rely upon government grants and other handouts to survive. He also lives, in part, off money from rich relatives. He argues that he is "doing good" in the world by "raising awareness" for political causes with his theater. One of his compatriots, on the other hand, who managed to get a part in a television series, is viewed as a "sellout" who compromised his moral authority. My friend believes that everyone should live in poverty and fight for social justice. Unfortunately, the world is filled with such folks, who often think they should be in charge of things, who claim the moral high ground, while at the same time, are unable to provide for even their own basic needs. It is possible, I suggest, to support yourself and still do good deeds - and in fact supporting yourself is the the most basic good deed you can do for society.
Again, the "helpful Grandma" scenario also illustrates how altruism can be the truly evil. Grandma will argue that she is "helping" her kids and grand kids, by selectively doling out money to those in "need". However, by making a selective judgement of who is in "need" and who is not, Grandma is training some kids to become dependent. I have seen this scenario repeated time and time again in family after family. One child or grandchild is identified as being "in need". That child quickly realizes that presents and attention (and later cash, cars, and even houses) are garnered by being "troubled." So they assume the identity of the "troubled child" and fulfill the Grandma's prophesy that the child "will never amount to anything". Oftentimes, such children never get a job, finish school, or move on with their lives. Grandma did not "identify" the problem child, she created it.
And what does Grandma get out of it? Control, for starters. Once children and Grandchildren are conditioned to live off the regular checks from Grandma (or go to Grandma every time they need to make a major purchase, pay off a credit card debt, etc.) they will keep going back to the well, again and again. Grandma makes them jump through hoops, to be sure, and both sides of this sick dance are never happy. The dependent children never develop their own lives, for starters. And safely outside of Grandma's earshot, they will bitch for hours about how they hate her. People resent those that give them welfare, if only because they know it symbolizes their own helplessness and lack of power. Biting the hand that feeds you is the norm, not the exception.
And Grandma? In addition to spending herself broke, she will do nothing but bitch about her "problem grandchild" at the slightest provocation. They will regale you with tales about how little Johnny needs help, and how they (as the hero in this story) paid for Johnny's new car to encourage him to finish High School. Or whatever. The main point is that they get to star in this little movie-of-the-week drama. Listening to this sort of thing gets old, really fast.
You see, being dependent is never fun for anyone, even those forced to do it because of circumstance. And you'd be surprised how many people will take extreme measure to live independently, even with severe handicaps and difficulties. Being dependent on the government or family for money breeds a deep, brooding, depression that is nearly impossible to shake. Everyone wants to be in control of their own destiny. And yet all of us will take easy money, if it is offered to us. Dependent people hate and revile the persons they are dependent from. If you try to "help" someone out, don't expect their eternal gratitude. It just ain't gonna happen.
Note also that there is the "reverse Grandma" scenario I have seen many times. This involves the parent or Grandparent who is old, infirm, and impoverished. Oftentimes they are impoverished because they played "helpful Grandma" earlier in life. One child or children assume responsibility for taking care of Grandma, or sending her money, often at the expense of their own financial well-being. Nailing themselves to the cross, they will regale anyone (and everyone) with their tale of injustice - how they helped pay for Grandma's upkeep, while the rest of the children (selfish bastards!) refused to contribute.
I know one person who played this game for a while, until they realized that Grandma was using them as a patsy. After paying off Grandma's credit card debt, moving her into assisted living, paying for the upkeep on her car, and sending her $500 month in cash, they were chagrined to see her roar into the driveway one day in a shiny new sports car. "Do you like it?" Grandma says. "I should" replied the son, "I'm paying for it." Before you fork over cash to someone who claims to be "in need" make sure they truly are.
I have had more than one friend approach me, asking for a handout. "You're lucky" they say, "You have money". I suppose luck has something to do with it. Perhaps working three jobs while attending night school might have had something to do with it. Or maybe driving older cars, living on less and saving more had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was valuing an education and not squandering it studying advanced navel-gazing. Perhaps. No, they're right, it was just luck - like winning the lottery. Not.
Anyway, in each scenario, they approach me to "borrow" money. And in each case, they are so far in debt that such a "loan" amounts to a "gift". When I review their finances, however, I discover that far from being destitute, they have a steady income, a place to live, and even a car. The reason they are destitute is that they are spending more than they are making. What they need is not a "loan" from me, but to cut out cable television, credit card spending, and eating out at restaurants 4 nights a week. They are asking me to loan them money to maintain a lifestyle that I myself cannot afford!
Creating dependency in others prevents them from fulfilling their part of the unwritten social contract. Once the "troubled child" realizes they can get a free ride by causing trouble, they will continue to do so. A junkie who is able to panhandle a hundred dollars a day and get free meals and a warm place to sleep has little incentive to give up drugs. The person who you "loan money" to will inevitably keep coming back to you for more, until you finally say "no."
And if by attempting to "help" such individuals or institutions or whatever, you end up not taking care of your own needs, then there are two victims to the story - as eventually, you will be the one broke and destitute, having squandered your savings trying to "help" others.
Fulfilling your basic obligation to society, by taking care of your own needs and insuring that your needs will be taken care of in the future, is the first and foremost basic "gift" you can give to society. Before you run off trying to "do good", make sure you have taken care of yourself, first.