Compassion or Enabling?

On Helping Other People...

By Dr. Ben Kim

Many years ago, I found myself in a beautiful town in the San Francisco Bay Area for a year-long residential internship. I had long wanted to live in the Bay Area, and having just completed two years of running a clinic in the arctic of Alaska, I had a little nest egg of savings and felt as free as a bird. Everything I owned fit neatly into my trusty Honda Civic.

I quickly located a small Korean church where I made some wonderful friends and found ways to be useful. I had spent much of my free time in Alaska reading through a small mountain of self help books, and felt like I was almost floating around with peaceful energy, looking to be of service and show compassion wherever I could.

There was one family at the church that I felt especially moved to help. I decided that the best way would be to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and leave them on their porch every Friday. I did this anonymously for a few weeks, and even after they caught me delivering a few cases of food one Friday afternoon, I continued with it because they expressed thanks and didn't seem to feel awkward about me wanting to help.

After completing my residential internship, I moved back to Toronto, and several months later, I heard from this family. The mother explained that they had moved to another town and were in desperate need of a house. In short, she asked if I could "lend" her $10,000 for a down payment.

The reality was that I didn't have that kind of money to lend to anyone. But more than anything else, I was disappointed by her request. Her and her husband were able-bodied people who, in my eyes, were capable of providing for their two children. If they couldn't afford to purchase a home, they could certainly earn enough to rent adequate housing for their family.

I turned them down gently and apologetically, as I had no interest in making them feel ashamed. But I turned them down after thinking things through and deciding that they were looking to take advantage of me. Being a young doctor who eagerly helped their family when I was out in California, I guess she assumed that I had plenty of money and would jump to send her some funds.

Also during my time in California, I met a visiting student from Korea who had a wonderful energy about her. In getting to know this student over a few months, I discovered that she desperately wanted to stay in the area for another half year to continue with her language studies. Because I was still in the mindset of wanting to be of service wherever I could, I impulsively concocted an unlikely story about having found a scholarship for her through a friend of mine back east. I even had her read a couple of books (on natural health, of course) and write essays on them as a part of the application that I whipped up to keep my financial involvement anonymous.

When her extra six months of study were almost up, she nonchalantly asked me to help her book her return flight home, as she didn't have a credit card. I did this with a bit of a sinking feeling in my heart, as I suspected that she didn't intend to pay for her ticket. Unfortunately, my instinct was correct, and being one to shy away from confrontation at all costs, I didn't say a word. I did, however, decide that I would never again so easily help a non-family member with a large sum of money.

Here's the thing: it took these and a few other similar experiences as a young adult for me to really understand the following Korean proverb:

When you save someone from drowning, he'll ask you why you didn't save his bag as well.

Meaning, with some people, when you help them, they'll ask for more help.

Sadly, my experience has been that there are some people in our world who truly don't mind taking advantage of others. Does this seem obvious to you? If so, then good - I'm glad you already know this. Because it wasn't obvious to me when I walked on youthful clouds of idealism, and was looking to give, give and then give some more.

It's a life lesson that they don't teach in public school. Decent people rarely ask for help, even when they desperately need it. They'll grind themselves to a nub trying to take care of themselves. They'll wash dishes and do away with all unnecessary expenses in their lives before they ask for charity.

If you reach out and find a way to have decent people accept some assistance, they'll find a way to make sure that you understand what your action means to them. And it's almost never just in words because words don't mean much a lot of the time.

Let me be clear in stating that I earnestly believe in being giving and generous. I'm just smarter about it now than I was in my mid-twenties. I've learned that whenever possible, it's best to give anonymously, and of course, only to those who clearly want to help themselves and be self sufficient.

To give generously of our time, talents, and money is to bless ourselves along with the recipients of our gifts - this is no secret. But I firmly believe that we must learn to be discerning in how we give and who we give to. Ultimately, we are stewards of all that we temporarily own, and a good steward is careful in making decisions on how resources under his or her care are used.

These are life lessons on giving that I plan on sharing with our boys when they're a bit older. When that time comes, I'll start by letting them know that if they decide to help someone, they should be prepared to fetch that someone's bag out of the water. :)

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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