Encouraging Independence: The Humanism of Philanthropy Versus the Culture of Dependency. How Much Help Is Too Much?

handsIf you’re a parent or you work with kids, you’re probably familiar with the dilemma of independence versus dependence. On one hand you want to encourage children to be as independent as possible for their ages, making decisions and trying new experiences. On the other hand, you want to protect them from the apparently endless bad things that can happen to them. Some of these issue from the society around them; some result from taking risks beyond their capabilities. 

Fast forward to an individual of legal age. It’s nice to think that adults can handle the challenges as well as the benefits of maturity. But if someone experiences a run of bad luck, should we help? I know if my children or grands came down with a catastrophic illness or lost their jobs or had a major expenditure for education or travel, I’d jump right in. 

Still, at some point, would I be doing them a disservice by discouraging them from taking responsibility for themselves?  Various friends and relatives face this issue. A daughter’s employer bottoms up, and she can’t find another position. . .for years. A son’s plumbing must be replaced, and he borrows thousands. . .and never is able to repay the loan. Depression and other emotional challenges can accompany the situation, making action or planning for changes even more difficult. 

Some of my acquaintances seem to take great pride in their support. Other times they express their frustration as well as worry about the situation. They report tip-toeing around the needy person to avoid making them feel like failures. 

Would a swift kick in the butt help? Perhaps. People’s drive for independence, their ability to meet challenges differs greatly. My kids were determined to stand on their own two feet from the time they could walk, probably to escape me. But not everyone’s like this. 

If our ultimate goal is a self-sustaining adult, we should be looking at the help we offer and evaluating if it’s really the help that’s needed. In a crisis, sure, we rush to do all we can. But after weeks or months or years, shouldn’t we discourage dependence? While emotional difficulties aggravate the process, they shouldn’t be a get-home-free card. Getting active mentally or physically can help. Composer Pyotre Tchaikovsky had bouts of severe depression, but his work actually helped him get through those. 

Politics doesn’t clarify the matter, neither do experts. Our attitudes haven’t changed much over 60 years. In West Side Story’s song “Dear Officer Krumpke,” written in the 50s, a gang of punks recite the numerous sociological and psychological reasons why they should be helped, rather than punished for their crimes and wrong-doing; and nothing changes them. The same pop-reasoning still holds sway. 

Rather get caught in that tired old debate of “one answer fits all,” in which political leanings seem to dictate an extreme either-or approach to helping people, we as parents/friends/voters might aim for a broad swath across the middle.  Help people in a crisis, then gradually wean them off both the public dole and the private handout. They’ll gain pride as well as self-sufficiency.

*  For one point of view about welfare and dependency, which, by the way, I don’t agree with, see “Why the U.S. has a culture of dependency,” a CNN opinion piece, by Matthew Spalding, 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

park-90476_640 Several days ago while going to meet a friend for Happy Hour, I drove through a nearby park. The changing fall leaves, the sun setting over the mountains on the horizon, the wide expanses of lawn were perfect for the mild weather. No season can beat autumn in Denver, and nothing in particular crossed my mind.

Until I spotted the grungy man crouched on the curb by the bus stop. Unkempt men, and the occasional woman, are not uncommon in this park in the central city, and town dwellers usually follow the “live and let live” mandate. But it was obvious this fellow was in trouble. He was mumbling to himself, swayed in all directions, and obviously couldn’t stand unsupported; so I pulled over and called out the window. “Do you need help?” “Yes” was the answer.

At 6:10 I dialed 911 to report the incident. When given the choice, I said the man appeared to need detox more than a regular ambulance. As evening fell and the skies grew dark and temperatures dropped, I waited. And waited. And waited. I made two more contacts to 911 (changing the request to an ambulance as it seemed that might respond more quickly), while a young couple on an outing with two children also called.

Compounding my frustration, on my second inquiry, the operator scolded me for “shouting.” Sorry, but when I’m worried, upset, and frantic, my voice goes up, a not uncommon reaction. It was obvious to me that this operator (and others I’ve encountered) lack elementary training in human responses to frustration.

The man muttered and swayed, sometimes seeming to communicate, others not. Vehicles, now with headlights on, sped by. Real concern that he’d struggle to his feet and land in the street to be run over made me linger. (Advice in these situations is to never leave the person alone.) Finally, at close to 7 p.m., more than 45 minutes after the first call, the emergency personnel showed up. Yes, they answered my question, detox incidents take lowest priority.

Why did I bother to stop? I’ve always felt people have an obligation, a mutual trust, to help one another. That’s what makes us human. I also made a personal pledge years ago not to wait for the other guy to act. (See “My Family of Heroes”) Guess I’m not too old to learn different.

My mistakes:
• Identifying the need for detox rather than medical.
• Hanging around to insure no one ran over the man.
• Believing that emergency personnel are supposed to respond in a timely manner.
• Stopping in the first place.

I spent the rest of the night depressed and angry. I don’t want to believe that life and death don’t matter except to the victim. I don’t want to agree with pessimists that government can’t manage any service efficiently and humanely. I don’t want to assume that individuals who are poor, homeless and substance abusers are worthless.

But following my recent experience, I’ve got to think about it.