When Robert was very little, something happened to him that was “the worst thing ever.” I don’t remember what it was, and it’s entirely possible I never knew. He was that small, that his explanation might have made no sense.
Lots of things were the worst thing ever at that age. He tripped and hurt himself. The water he was about to drink spilled down his front. He’d started falling asleep and come suddenly awake for no good reason he could figure.
He was crying, mouth open, in absolute grief. I remember I was in the bathroom, and this must be at the time we were potty training him, because there was a jar of candy on the toilet tank (something our friends found somewhere between appalling and amusing, but it worked. Pee in toilet, get piece of candy.) I sat on the tub (I think I was putting makeup on to go out) pulled him to me, hugged him, told him everything was all right, and gave him a piece of candy.
Like that, his crying went from unbridled grief to a big smile. And I remember thinking “Ah, son, if only I could do that for the rest of your life. If whatever problems face you could be banished by a hug and a piece of candy.”
He’s 25. He’s gone through many things I couldn’t console him for, including illness and breakups. Now he’s very nervous about upcoming exams, and my hugging him and telling him everything will be all right doesn’t clear it.
Younger son is worse at this sort of crisis, because he won’t tell us he’s in trouble, and sometimes he’s not quite sure what is trouble, what things matter and how to fix them, and by the time we figure it out it’s a much bigger mess than it should be.
I think there’s an instinct in humans, particularly in women to “fix everything” for someone else. We want that magic bullet. We want to make everything right. But what actually happens is that when you try to fix someone’s every problem, nine times out of ten, you create another set of problems.
You see, people need to at least know what is a problem, know they need to be got out of them, and need to have some basic skills so they don’t fall into them again.
It’s very easy as a mother to insist on ironing their clothes forever, rather than letting them look like they slept out in the zoo with lions. But if you keep doing that, they’ll never learn that there is even a problem with going out all rumpled. Clothes become that weird thing mom obsesses about, and neatness never correlates to how people respond to you.
The same with, for instance, making them eat breakfast in the morning. If you keep doing it, they’ll never correlate it with how attentive they can be in class during the day, etc.
It’s the hardest thing in the world as a mother. You have to let them fall on their faces, before they figure out what they’re doing wrong and learn how not to fall. It’s bad even with friends. When I was young and stupid, I’d just hand out rent money to friends who were about to be evicted, we’d buy computers for friends who needed to finish a novel, even when it was going to hurt us all month, we treated friends and other relatives as though they were our minor children, in other words.
Even in adults this doesn’t work so well. You end up with several weird behaviors, the most common of this being the people who come back again and again — we see this with several people who have become addicted to begging on facebook, it seems, and live on the verge of disaster but miraculously always keep going — or what you sacrifice to provide doesn’t get used at all (of three computers we gave people to finish novels, because they needed to sell, only one sold and that was 20 years later) or there is really no perceptible difference in people’s circumstances.
And that’s with private charity. When you bring in government and the idea you’re entitled to never suffer hardship and never have to sweat towards anything because you were born in a time and place, then you’re really encouraging behaviors that brought people into trouble in the first place. I think guaranteed minimum income (getting paid for drawing breath) is the sign of a serious pathology (besides never working when it’s been tried, and leading to the infantilization of the population and perpetuation of dependency and ultimately greater poverty for all.)
It’s an understandable impulse. Few of us like to see people suffer. But suffering, bit or small, is how humans learn. If you don’t poke the fire you’ll never know it burns.
The trick with children and with friends, and with strangers at large, is to try to ensure the finger doesn’t go into the fire so hard it burns off the finger, but that it touches the fire enough to feel the burn.
Ultimately, no matter how much you want to protect people, at some point you realize not only you can’t, but it’s immoral for you to do so. You’re interfering with the choices of adults, and their right to learn from those choices.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice charity. I do. There are unexpected blows of fate, unexpected expenses, and unexpected disasters, in which those of us who believe in freedom help our friends because we can do it better than any government can.
I’m saying that we need to exert judgement over when how and whom we help. Even if everyone is crying and just experienced the worst thing ever, it’s important to think through whether this is recurrent, whether it’s a pattern of behavior, whether the person blundered ahead despite many, many warnings. Then you need to figure out whether there is some impairment that prevents people from doing what they need to do to not get in these situations. If there is, you can’t make it worse by helping, and it’s like helping a child. Someone has to.
But giving indiscriminately, without thinking and examining all circumstances carefully and keeping in mind “first do no harm” is as bad as never giving at all.
Which is why government is the worst instrument for charity. And why indiscriminate compassion turns into infantilization and discrimination.