It is basic human nature to want to help others, and for social justice advocates it can be a mission, but we must learn not to force our help on other people. I learned this in an embarrassing way.
In 1978 one of the first women I interviewed as a possible client in the Sioux City office of Iowa Legal Services began by describing an extremely complicated legal predicament, but I was so inexperienced the complexity did not faze me. I told her I would do some research and over the next few days I concocted an equally complicated way of trying to extract her from her predicament. When I presented her facts and my proposed plan of action to the assembled staff at our Thursday afternoon intake meeting even the support staff were laughing at the three-ring circus solution I was proposing. My managing attorney, Roger Foreman smiled through the whole presentation, “That’s not a case! That’s a career!” I tried to muster my composure and dignity, then groveled and begged for permission to take the case on and they finally relented, and Roger sent me off with the benediction, “Go in peace, my son. And may this opportunity to get scorched teach you to listen to others when they warn you that fire is hot.”
I brought the woman back into the office, told her we would take the case and started to describe my solution. By the time I got to step 10 she started shaking her head, by step 25 she surrendered. “No, no way. That is too much trouble for you and too much trouble for me, forget the whole thing,” and she left.
I rushed to Roger’s office. “How do I convince her to let me do this case?”
Roger turned me around and sent me out the door with a pat on the back. “Bob, your legal career is going to be much smoother if you don’t go around trying to help people who don’t want your help!”
And like a bolt out of the blue it struck me. I wanted to convince her to go forward so I could have the satisfaction of doing the case. The fact that it would help her was secondary. It was really about me.
No such thing as a selfless act.
And that’s when I made a new rule for myself, don’t insist on helping people who don’t want my help.
30 years later when I was working for the American Bar Association in DC and mentoring my 100+ interns over nine years, I used to challenge them to name one completely unselfish act. My position was that there was no such thing.
“And before you even suggest it, let’s eliminate the most selfless appearing act of all, sacrificing one’s life for another. You know that I was a firefighter, trained to help people in danger. So imagine this, I am waiting for the metro to arrive so I can head home.
“But just as a train enters the far end of the station a little girl runs to the edge to look and falls onto the tracks. I rush toward her, doing the calculation which convinces me I can jump down, lift her off the track and safely pass her up to the platform just about the time the train crushes me.
“Will I jump down and try to save her?”
I always paused dramatically here to let them consider what a gosh darn hero stands before them.
“You bet I’ll jump! Absolutely! Will it be a selfless decision? Absolutely not!
“And the reason why sacrificing myself would not be a selfless act is because when faced with this dilemma I have two options:
“1. I could do what I personal consider the proper thing, sacrifice my 66-year-old self to allow a young girl to live the rest of her life. Or,
“2. Do what I consider the wrong thing, turn around, walk away, ignoring the screams and then have to live the rest of my life knowing that when the chips were down, I proved to be a selfish coward.
“Those are my two options, they may not be yours.”
I never did have anyone come up with an example of a purely selfless act, but I remain open to suggestions.
So, having established that whenever we want to help people we always have something to gain for ourselves – it will make us happy, or it will satisfy a need we have to do what is right, or to live up to one of society’s rules of proper behavior, etc.
Does that mean we shouldn’t help others? Of course not, it just means that anytime you volunteer to help someone, you are doing it, in part, for yourself, and therefore, if they decline your offer, accept the rejection with grace, and when appropriate, remind the person you will remain available to help them if they change their mind.
An example of my philosophy in practice:
“Your assistance is no longer needed.”
As I have written before I was the leader of a group of lawyers and paralegals which built the first state-wide domestic violence program in the state of Iowa in 1978. The group consisted of 15 women and myself. Since it had been my idea, I was the leader. We met regularly to check progress, set up trainings, seek locations for shelters, plan fundraisers, etc. Within six months we had the program up and running, and six months after that I left Iowa to spend a year in the Caribbean. When I returned to my new office in Ottumwa, Iowa I called up the leader who had replaced me and told her I was back and had some great ideas for moving the work forward. And she told me that the other women had decided that a domestic violence project should for women, by women, and my services would no longer be needed. That hurt my feelings. A lot. But not for long. I quickly recognized they were right, a group to empower women being led by a man was ludicrous on its face, and I wanted to continue to lead the group because it made me feel important. So, I gracefully bowed out as the door slammed shut in my face.
Which reminds me of this,
The “standing on the metro platform” dilemma reminded of two things. I once brought an ethical dilemma to a good friend of mine who worked with me at the American Bar Association, Tanisha Bowens-McCatty. After laying out a situation which baffled me because I could not find a good exit she said, “Sometimes you have only two options and they are both bad.” Which was a relief because I realized that, while I was still screwed, it was not for lack of imagination in finding a better option, there was no good option. I believe her observation applies to the metro dilemma.
Every time I went through his exercise with interns, in the back of my mind I would wonder if maybe jumping down on the tracks might not be suitable way to end to my life story. And that thought always took me back to a conversation I had with an old Captain back when I was still fighting fire. We were sitting in the shade of a lemon tree, and he had enough beer in him that he was waxing nostalgic. “You know, Bopper, I am bone tired and I have been sick of this shit for 20 years, and have only one request, I hope to God I die doing something semi-heroic instead of getting killed by a hit and run driver while I cross the street to buy some cigarettes at 7-11.”
Once a hero, always a hero, I guess.