Why those who receive so often turn to bite...The Helping Hand
MAY 01, 1959 by VOLLIE TRIPP
Mr. Tripp, retired from the building business, now devotes full time to travel, writing, and the promotion of free enterprise.
Human nature often is revealed in jokes, such as the one about the businessman seated in his office, when his excited secretary burst in.
"There’s a man here named Bill Simpson, and he says he’s come to beat you up!"
"Bill Simpson, “reflected the businessman.” That’s odd. I can’t recall ever doing him a favor."
Whether the businessman got beaten up by his irate visitor, the narrator neglected to say. But we can infer that the man in the office was quite familiar with that strange aspect of human nature which has both puzzled and saddened many others.
What of this perverse trait in human beings that impels people so often to turn against their benefactors? A man who has labored into the twilight of his life on behalf of others, observes without bitterness or regret: “I have always tried to help the underdog. And the underdog has always turned around and bitten me."
Why is this so?
Having been on the receiving end of this kind of reverse gratitude for sundry favors rendered, and having lost a few valued friends through well-meaning efforts to help them, I set about to resolve this interesting phenomenon. Nothing, it seems, takes place without cause.
We should realize, first of all, that every normal person has an instinctive need to think well of himself. He must appear in his own eyes as a fairly satisfactory human being, all things considered. He has no practical way to escape from that clinging, all-pervading self. A contrary view of self, a disparaging view, would be intolerable, and would likely result in insanity or self-destruction. ‘Tis well that we cannot “see ourselves as others see us,” the old bard to the contrary. In fact, psychologists and criminal authorities say even the most depraved refuse to think of themselves as such. In a literal sense, they make excuses for themselves in order to live with themselves.
Now this instinctive inborn need of man to look upon himself with favor, to minimize his faults and magnify his virtues, implies a capacity to meet certain difficulties and challenges imposed by the very act of living. In other words, he must believe in himself to this extent. If he did not believe in himself to some extent, it is doubtful that he should ever reach maturity, let alone success.
This being so, we can see that it flatters man not at all to suggest that he is too weak, too stupid, too lazy, to meet life’s minimum terms. And, should we force this conclusion on him, woe to us! We have wounded that man in a vital spot. Small wonder, then, that his resentment should be directed at him who offered the insult; at him who has disturbed his favorable view of himself. Help, aid, of whatever sort, must be given, if at all, with the foregoing well in mind.
It should be made quite clear that those partially or totally unable to help themselves, through accident, illness, advanced age, idiocy, or other circumstances beyond their power to remedy, are beyond the scope of these discussions. They must have care, tenderness, and affection, according to their need. Nor need any odium attach to this kind of charity.
It is realized that the line grows faint at times between those who are in need through no fault of their own, and those who are in need as a result of too prolonged and too easy “aid.” Perhaps no completely satisfactory delineation between these groups can ever be made.
Admission of Inferiority
But help, aid, assistance of whatever sort, can hardly be administered without running afoul of a fundamental part of man’s nature. Those who must accept help, or who think they must (it comes to the same thing), are in consequence obliged to admit a certain inferiority to the helper, in those spheres to which the assistance relates. We should be naive indeed not to expect reactions of resentment, even bitterness, as the victim seeks redress in the only way he knows.
There is a practical way to escape the fury of those receiving wounds to their self-esteem. Experienced philanthropists distribute their alms anonymously. While this technique is useful to those who seek to do good works, it probably does not lessen the damage to the recipient. Though deprived of the opportunity to strike directly at the author of his injury, his displeasure is bound to manifest in other ways.
It should be admitted that insult, injury, calumny do not always follow assistance to those in need or trouble. Sometimes the receivers of help are intelligent enough to analyze their deep, primordial feelings, welling up from the fierce mysterious depths of the human ego, drive them away, or banish them from consciousness. At other times, the unfortunate are decent enough to hide whatever feelings of acrimony the acceptance of help may breed. But the type of people most frequently in need of help are seldom able either to analyze their own feelings or to stifle those which urge reprisals upon their benefactors.
Those who have given of their time, money, and strength in behalf of the underdog must have sensed this curious paradox, or seeming paradox, in the behavior of human beings. Few, perhaps, have taken the trouble to try to understand it. Sociologists generally would agree that the best possible way to help anyone is to help him to help himself. The theory is right, but the carrying out poses problems.
All experience bears out the futility, not to mention the danger, of too easy charity to those in need. There is not just the danger that the person so aided will slacken efforts in his own behalf, which is serious enough, but that he will react with savage fury whenever he is caused to lose face in his own estimation. When this happens, as it always has, and always must—when individuals or nations are compelled to make unfavorable comparisons between themselves and others, through accepting help—resentment and pique will follow those primitive drives for vengeance.
No Room for Gratitude
Those who insist on helping others have no right to expect gratitude. Isn’t it enough that the helped restrain whatever umbrage may result, in consequence of it? As a matter of fact, this requirement of gratitude, explicit or implied, can only aggravate a relationship which is difficult at best. Perhaps if we could eliminate all such claims on the subject of our largess, we might neutralize some of the irritation with us for our doing of good. With tact and patience we might learn to help people without incurring their open enmity.
Those who would buy friends, not to speak of dependable allies, by such euphemisms as “foreign aid,” are uninformed both in psychology and in the lessons of history. By our outpouring of wealth into such nations as
Our popularity as a nation and a people is in reverse ratio to the amount of “help” we have advanced foreign nations. In
Wards of the State
Getting back to the personal level, to the problems of millions of persons whose egos have been deeply hurt by state and federal aid, it must be admitted that many thousands have lost all power to help themselves. The State, having rendered them impotent, will now have to take care of them. But we need not continue this blind waste of human resources.
Perhaps it is going too far to say it is the deliberate, calculated design to soften up the moral fiber of the people by such enervating devices as aid to farmers, grants in-aid to states, or social security, where the recipients are made to feel they “have it coming” to them. But whatever the true motive, no course could be more effective if it were intended to produce a race of spineless serfs.
By appealing to man’s weakness, in a word, making him feel sorry for himself, he is all too easily persuaded that the State, or someone, “owes him a living"; and like an overgrown suckling past weaning time, he will yell to Heaven in defense of his “rights.” But the State, the government, not content merely to seduce the citizen by all manner of unearned bounties, seems determined to force the thrifty and self-respecting into a condition of supine beggardom through its tax on thrift and initiative. The punitive taxes on industry and solvency present increasing difficulties to those who most despise the idea of dependence and all it implies.
True charity must never be confused with subsidized pauperism. Charity and force are as different as fire and water. Real charity, as the Reverend Russell J. Clinchy so well defines it, is “an act of loving all men as brothers because they are sons of God.” But neither true charity nor the spurious brand put out by the Welfare State can ever be a satisfactory way of making a living.
Provisions for Termination
An important requirement of giving help is that it be terminated the moment the “case” is able to do without it. This may require, at times, a little gentle suasion.
The problem of the poor, the ineffectual, the “underdog,” will remain with us always, I fear. There has never been anything even remotely resembling a solution. George Bernard Shaw once proposed to solve it by shooting everyone who didn’t make at least 5,000 pounds sterling a year. Others would shoot everyone who did. Though interesting, these witticisms bear but remotely on the matter under discussion: the wrath, active or passive, which usually follows attempts to help those in need.
Once we understand the underlying causes, we will save ourselves much moaning and wailing in self-pity, when having extricated the underdog, he shows his appreciation by rending our flesh. After all, it is but a droll human trait, no more to be assessed against man than many other regrettable limitations.
And since we are going to have to keep right on helping people—some people, anyway—this knowledge of human nature ought to be useful to us. For one thing, we may learn how to assist another with a minimum of “flashback.” We may also learn how to parry it when or if it comes.
If we could restore a concept of “aid” in vogue fifty years ago, much good would result. This was the idea, generally accepted, that help was extended with the sole purpose of getting the helped back on his feet and producing as quickly as possible. There existed a tacit understanding between helper and helped on this score. And the helped, fully expecting to regain quickly his former status, helping others in his turn, suffered no galling traumatic injury as he does today.
One of the homely “institutions” of a bygone time was the woodpile, with quantities of uncut wood, a chopping block, and an ax. Applicants for “aid,” sometimes bums, often men honestly seeking work, were habitually referred to the woodpile for a square meal.
It was a point of pride at our house that no man was ever turned away hungry, whether or not he elected to pay for his dinner by cutting a few armloads of wood. Indeed, most of them did so gladly. This early version of “trade, not aid” helped the down-and-outer in two ways. It gave him a better appetite, and it left the fellow with ego intact, knowing that he could help himself if he chose. I do not recall that we ever made an enemy by offering a man a chance to work in exchange for a good nourishing farm meal, though many were the kicks in the face from people given outright help.
Certainly the logical plea of debtor nations for “trade, not aid,” if heeded, would result in vastly better international relations than can ever be bought with “foreign aid.” And we all should benefit by the natural exchange of goods.
The most helpful man in any community is not the man who dispenses the most charity. On the contrary, he is the one who makes any kind of charity or aid unnecessary. He is, if I may say so, the man who gives the most people self-respecting gainful employment. The least helpful are those who seek to harass, penalize, and ruin men willing to risk their time and capital in venturesome pursuits.
When we understand better the immense complications of the human soul—when we better appreciate the extreme tenderness of the human psyche—we shall no longer offer a man insults in this clumsy fashion. Nor will we be puzzled and chagrined when he strikes back at his would-be benefactors.
If it were ever true that we grow strong by bearing burdens, it’s true today. It follows, and is equally true, that we grow weak and flaccid when our burdens are taken away.
The Downward Path
Satisfying one’s compassion for others with the fruits of one’s own labor is no easy way to win friends. But a certain way to make enemies is to indulge in political “charity” where the motive is political power instead of compassion and where the donations are forcibly taken from stockpiles other than our own.
To millions, these police-grants-in-aid offer weakness rather than strength, dependence rather than independence, faith, security, and freedom. In the doing, we are hurting man in a tender and vital spot. We insult his pride when we invite him to degrade himself in his own eyes. This cannot continue without the gravest consequences to him as well as to those who render the “aid."