One of the best qualities that many of those who have little possess is their willingness to give away the little they have to others who have less than themselves. I am truly surprised again and again when I see this phenomenon.
What I am not surprised with at all in working with those who are largely underemployed or unemployed and on social assistance, is that when asked about their career aspirations, they overwhelmingly talk about wanting to help others. So just to be clear, these are unemployed people with minimum wage part-time jobs or no jobs whatsoever, who are in receipt of financial assistance in order to eat and pay rent, and instead of having their hand out for more, are looking to help others. They may have hit on one of the very best attributes a person can have in doing so.
And here I am looking as objectively as I can at this person, living in poverty, living on a daily basis with the uncertainty that dependency on others requires, and thinking to myself, “You do realize you’re someone who needs help. Get yourself together first.”
Of course this inner voice that is compelling these same individuals to want to help others, resonates with them because they have been on the receiving end, and they know first-hand what it feels like to have someone reach out and offer them a hand. I think it fair to say that the people with employment that they interact with on social assistance are largely in the helping professions themselves, so the role models they see and aspire to are what they know.
In other words, if they have dealt with Social Workers, Caseworkers, Employment, Addiction and Mental Health Counsellors, Legal Aid Workers and Advocacy Workers, it is highly probable that at least one of these people at some point has had an impact on them for good; enough perhaps to make them want to do something similar.
In the middle class, we might growing up be exposed more to University Professors, business leaders, the financial sector etc., and so we might find someone in one of these professions and think to ourselves, “I’d like a job just like so-and-so. I could see myself doing that.”
Often the problem for people in poverty however is that they only see the side of the job where the person in the helping profession is meeting with them one-on-one. They don’t see the paperwork, the computer software data inputting, the theories that need mastering, the meetings, the statistic gathering, the proposal writing, the accountability. We in the professions know the schooling it took us to obtain our degrees, diplomas and Masters. Unfortunately, if we are objectively honest, we may find ourselves skeptical at best and downright unbelieving at worst, that a client in poverty battling mental health and addiction issues has what it will require to succeed in formal higher education.
Is that fair? Are we setting limits on people that we should really be encouraging? Or are we in danger of encouraging someone to strive for a job they say they want who will ultimately end up being in debt from University fees and drop out when they are overwhelmed because they lack the proper discipline and intellect to pass course exams?
There’s a danger here as we might be painting everyone in poverty and on assistance as destined for low-paying, working poor employment; and that’s just wrong. There are many in poverty who have intelligence, some with university degrees and even the odd Doctor here and there which might surprise you. It’s a testament to our ignorance; yours AND mine if we collectively think only people with low-education make up those in poverty.
One true way to help others of course does in fact remain to help yourself first. Help others down the road in other words when you’ve lifted yourself out of poverty and are self-sufficient. Get your education, get a decent paying job, or get your attitude adjusted from negative to positive. Put yourself in a place where you can rely on yourself financially, then you’ll find yourself in a position to not only help others with money if that’s your wish, but you can help them by being a living example.
It’s not enough in other words for an addict in recovery to see themselves as wanting to help others break free. Sure the intent is good, and no one knows more about what it feels like to be an addict than a recovered addict. However, to be highly effective, you’re going to need the education to go with your role as a past-user to be in a position to help others best when they are ready for your help.
Getting yourself together means setting some meaningful short and long-term goals. It means making some different and better decisions. It might mean a return to school to finish a diploma, gaining some self-respect and confidence. It might also mean putting your personal needs first and foremost at this point of your life and learning to both like and help yourself as a primary activity.
Whether it’s shaving an unruly beard, taming the wild hair, updating your wardrobe, saying, “yes” instead of “maybe someday”, you can make decisions to improve your personal life now.
It’s true; if you want to help others, help yourself first. That’s not selfish; it’s wisdom.