We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves. —Galileo Galilei
If you follow us on Facebook, you might have noticed that we rescued a couple of kittens over the weekend. We didn’t feel that we had any choice. They had been dropped off at a neighbor’s house early last week, not even old enough to be fully weened. With temperatures high and the neighbors going out of town for the weekend, to have left them there would have almost certainly been a death sentence.
Catching them wasn’t easy. They had learned quickly how to scamper away and hide from danger. Kat was able to catch one, a girl, almost by accident last Friday. It would be two more days of frequent attempts before she would catch the second. They were dehydrated, hungry, and scared. We brought them in, bathed them, gave them food and love, and are carefully nursing them back to health. The little girl is doing well, but the little boy still has a ways to go.
There are times in our lives when we are like those kittens: alone, helpless, defenseless, and nowhere to turn. Left on our own, many of us might die. Homeless statistics show that hundreds die every year just from being out in the elements day after day. While there are many wonderful people and organizations who try to help, though, there are always those who fall between the cracks.
I’ve been there, living out of my car, or living on the street, thankful for friends who made sure I ate occasionally, or got a shower every once in a while. Needing such a severe degree of help is humiliating. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be in that position. Yet, it happens more often than anyone realizes. Even those who gather statistics on the homeless realize there are more that are not counted, perhaps twice as many, as there are those known.
Help is there for some, but not for all. The general philosophy of most aid organizations, and certainly that of government agencies, is that little to no help is available as long as one appears to have any resources of their own. One local well-known shelter requires that one be completely homeless, on the street with absolutely no other option, for at least 24 hours before they offer any assistance. When these organizations do offer help, the aid comes with a long list of rules, some of which require exposure to proselytizing efforts.
This “strings attached” approach of helping assumes that people will take advantage of any generosity that is not carefully managed, and I’m sure there are several people who might do so. However, such a philosophy hurts those who are genuinely in need. Not everyone can wait another 24 hours. Not everyone can attend the worship service. Not everyone can jump through the hoops. As a result, thousands fall through the cracks and go without help.
A couple of years ago, we were downtown for some large-scale event and had purchased food from one of the event’s vendors. Kat’s food came with pickles that she didn’t really want. So, she removed the pickles, wrapped them in a napkin so as to avoid making a mess, and then set them on top of an already full trash can. Almost immediately, a man who appeared to have not bathed in a while unfolded the napkin and picked the pickles out of the trash.
Kat didn’t hesitate. There was more than enough change from our meal to pay for another. She took the change, placed it in the man’s hands, and encouraged him to buy something more than pickles.
The look on his face was one of surprise. He hadn’t asked anyone for help. He wasn’t panhandling. He wasn’t expecting anyone to give him anything.
Kat acted out of compassion. She didn’t ask him any background questions. She didn’t invite him to a support group or a religious meeting. There was no waiting period. She saw an opportunity to help and took it, filling a gap others missed.
Compassion-based programs do exist, but they’re few and far between and woefully underfunded. Many potential donors feel the organizations are reckless with their money because they act first and inquire later. Yet, if real need is to be addressed, compassion is the only attitude that is genuinely effective.
The Pain of Saying No
How many times have I heard the words, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you?” Sometimes they were said in anger that I had requested a service the person or agency didn’t want to provide. Some were incredulous that I had even asked them to do anything, such as donate to a charity or support an environmental cause. There are plenty of people who simply don’t want to help anyone, ever.
For those who have an ounce of compassion, however, turning anyone away for any reason, no matter how legitimate that reason might be, comes with pain. I’ve seen government agency workers cry because a mother who was desperately in need of food for her infant was not, on paper, destitute enough to meet the agency’s qualifications. I’ve seen some aid workers break their organization’s rules and give out of their own pockets to someone unable to jump through the hoops.
When one sees a real need and can’t help, turning people away can physically hurt. Yet, when resources are limited, or non-existent, there may be no choice than to utter those fateful words. One might exhaust all they have and still there would be need.
A Different Direction
Perhaps one of the most difficult situations is when we see someone who needs help but doesn’t want help, or doesn’t realize they need the help. The kittens were certainly in that predicament. While we could see they were starting and in need of immediate intervention, they were frightened and suspicious of anyone who came close. Catching them and helping them was, for the kittens, a moment of trauma.
People are not necessarily different. Not everyone sees the imminent danger they’re in because the circumstances give them a distorted perspective. Some have been hurt by those claiming to help. Some are addicted to medicines that were intended to help but now hurt. Helping these people can be almost impossible and traumatic. Yet, they need people who don’t judge them, who don’t preach to them, but just help.
Too many rules, people trying to turn assistance and help into a profit-making scheme, requirements for insurance and some source of income, make it impossible for those on the margins to get help. We are sentencing them to death every time we say those words, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
No End In Sight
Ending this article is difficult because there is no end to the problem. For every kitten we are able to save, dozens more die from malnutrition and neglect. For every person we feed, hundreds more are starving. There is no end.
Yet, we continue to do what we can. By tomorrow, we may need help ourselves. Nothing is certain. Even the best of intentions sometimes fail. As we are helping others, the thought creeps into the back of our minds, “Will anyone be there when we need help?” The prospects of how alone we might be in such a situation motivate us to help those already there.
We can’t heal all the world’s hurts, address everyone’s most urgent needs, on our own. We know that. We give help to both humans and animals when we encounter them and have the ability to do something right then. We try to not be the ones who push people off to government or religious organizations. We especially try to not say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” We do our best to give real help to real need.
What about you? If I asked you for help today, what would be your response? Think about it and then look around you. Someone close needs your help. Don’t be the one who turns them away.