Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Difficulty Helping People

by Tom Armstrong

I would like to get into something very basic to Buddhism, that has certainly been explored, but to my admittedly-very-limited knowledge, hasn’t been pulled together very well.

Why is it so damn hard to help people?

One would think that it would be THE fundamental thing to do, of great help to the world at large. One would think that if you can give someone or some group or some nation that one simple, timely leg-up, he or they or it would go on to reach his/their/its full potential, and the benefits from that would ripple out into the world and there would be this cascade of goodness and good news.

But it is hard to help people. They fall into their ruts and pour concrete around their feet ... or so it seems.

The recent book A Farewell to Alms looks into the issue on the macro-scale, helping Third World countries, addressing question like Why, with all the money we pour into Africa and Iraq and Bangladesh, and elsewhere, do things remain essentially unchanged?

The author believes that aid delivered to dirt-poor countries gets diverted to feeding the problems instead of curing them. While aid, well directed, can have immediate benefits -- feeding the hungry, classically -- it also props up the corruption that is in place and any improved standard of living that might come gets overwhelmed by the high levels of birth and, thus, population increase endemic to impoverished peoples. And that drags the country down much more than anything can lift it up.

Truly, the idea of improvement to one’s standard of living is a new condition, first found in London of the 1820s. We animals, be us fleas or humans, rat or polar bears, will take whatever good fortune comes our way and turn it into a population boom that returns us to our natural state: poverty. That is, until affluence can take hold, for a spell, and our selfish interest in personal comforts and diversions can make us want to have a very limited number of offspring.

Global Warming and the disaster from that that seems unavoidable may just be another instance of a species wending its way back to its natural condition, living at the edge, or beyond the edge, of apocalypse.

But even if population control -- something that is out of flower [Whatever happened to ZPG, Zero Population Growth, a group that was out there beating the bushes in the 70s and 80s?] -- is the way to deliver us from world problems, long term, how can we help individuals, now!?

I look at my family and friends and myself and acquaintances past and think ‘what a menagerie of the lost and troubled.’ Each of us, in ways unique, is a cesspool of a sort with a mighty horrible end looming.

One friend of mine, from high school, was one of the most fun, upbeat people you could know. He was editor of the school paper and went on to get a degree in journalism. But like his parents, he liked alcohol. And in jobs he sought where he worked independently -- as an acquisitions editor, notably, repeatedly -- he slacked off and drove his budding career into the ground. In his personal life, he is alienated from his wife (now exxed) and daughter. A mutual friend of ours has helped ‘set him up’ again in life, guaranteeing his rent, and he’s gotten a rather menial job, but he‘s not fun anymore. He means to be fun, but it is like he is pitifully still in 12th grade with interests others of us have long since moved beyond. And he drinks, and we're tired of that.

Another example: My sister is on one level a great success -- vice president at one of the nation’s biggest banks at 25. But she is such a beast that a quarter century later -- while still with the bank and now a higher-level vice president -- she has been relieved of having others report to her. My sister and I had been only at the bare margins of each other’s lives, until the effects of aging began to drag down our mother. It is hard to know if the “evil” my sister does is by intention or due to some kind of emotional blindness, but everything she does is destructive and hurtful. Without going into details, she truly is a monster and is a prime reason for my interest in sociopaths. Is she one? I wonder. Is her long-time demonstrated affection for dogs just an act? It is hard to find compassion in her behavior or anything she does that can be explained by something other than selfishness. Significant others in her life have been kindly women she fully dominates and grinds down.

I could easily come up with a dozen other examples of people in my life who are flawed and entrapped and won’t be helped or can’t be helped by some bizarre, unique-seeming circumstance. Readers, I’d bet there is a menagerie of people like that in your life: People who had little tell-tale tics as little kids that grew into grotesque personality burdens that seem to have devoured them.

They can’t be helped, it seems. It’s like that, everywhere. At the workplace, there are people who have habits or addictions or areas of blindness that keep them from doing a good job. On the streets, there are people who have fallen. You want to pick them us and save them, but you can’t. Yet, until we can help each other we are surely doomed to endless cycles of destruction.

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  1. An interesting subject Tom and one I've thought about many times myself - more recently from the perspective of the Bodhisattva vows I've taken.

    I'm not a determinist, but most of the problems facing individuals and communities have ended up in are due to deep rooted genetic, psychological, cultural and economic factors which are not resolved by relatively superficial aid.

    With regards to Third World aid for example, I think that pouring money into the situation can help with specific crises such as the Asian Tsunami, but does not change the cultural or economic situation in a helpful way in the long term. Also of course, some funds are absorbed by local corruption. Have you read 'Freakonomics'? I'm tending to think now that apart from crisis help, the best thing to do is to bring business to these nations. China and India But affluence creates its own problems in the form of increasing wealth gap, materialism, destruction of traditional communities and added environmental pressure.

    There is no cure for sociopathy. Your sister is probably already in the best sort of position in that she can channel her energies into being a captain of industry. If you can encourage your friend to get help for his alcohol problem, with perhaps some therapy, maybe that would make a difference in the long term.

    Problems will always arise, suffering will alwys happen. Sometimes people and situations will be responsive to help and sometimes they won't. Be aware of help you can offer. Avoid contributing to people's suffering. Don't beat yourself up if you can't help.

  2. Hey Tom,

    I hear you. I work in development and one of the toughest questions is are we helping more than we are harming.
    And I've worked for someone like your sister. A harrowing and growth promoting experience. In the end that experience was what solidified my faith.
    We can't save anybody. We were never meant to. Neither was the Buddha. They have to come to it themselves. And along the way, if we're there to lend a hand from time to time when they ask for it then they might find thier own compassionate heart.
    But I agree, the hardest thing to do is watch them struggle, suffer, and wallow blindly in samsara. Dosen't it give you renewed appreciation of your own insight and perspective?

  3. Thanks, Justin,

    A good point: A lot good can be done in the world when we rush in to aid after disasters.

    And, as I saw on TV, there is help with AIDs in Africa that saves a lot of live, and a new malaria vaccine that could help hundreds of thousands of children, and Engineers Without Borders are finding new ways of directly meeting the expressed needs of poor people.

    But when we do succeed in saving lives, we just create greater pain further down the road, overburdening the world with more people, more crowding, more demand for dwindling resources.

    Thanks for the Freakonomics recommendation. I read the NYTimes blog of that name, but haven't read the book. I've requested it at my library.

    My friend has family members who would pay for a Betty Ford-type intervention, but he refuses it. And as for my sister, yes, better a captain of industry than a serial killer.



    The frustration does solidify my faith in Buddha's wisdom. It is as if there is no other way than the Buddha's path to address suffering.

    It just seems that there ought to be people with the job "Life Fixer" who could just grab Britany Spears and re-arrange her life [or anyone's life] after a one month intensive and then everything would be jolly. People are self-destructive -- KNOW they are self-destructive -- but can't seem to do anything about it other than wait and watch themselves blow up.

    Crazy old world, this.

  4. I hear you loud and clear on this Tom. I've been working in the mental health field for a long time. In fact, "Professional Fixer" isn't too far off, except for the inconvenient fact that no one gets fixed. At my last job, I got to work with adolescents for a solid month at a stretch before turning them loose. Rarely did changes seem to stick, but at least with kids you have some hope that a seed was planted, that things might change some day. Working with adults in psych hospitals was downright dreadful. You saw everyday how bad it can get, and the steady stream of damaged humans just keeps getting stronger.

    And yet helping people doesn't necessarily need "results" when it flows naturally from one's being. Whatever good it does happens right there in the moment and in some ways the effects are sublte and mysterious.

  5. I just happened upon this site this morning, and have only read the two most recent pieces, but...

    I think Buddhism teaches us to not be attached to the results of "right action". No one can ever be a real "Professional Fixer", because when you get right down to it, nobody can "fix" andybody else.

    Remembering that the Tibetan Wheel of Existence should be interpeted as sort of a Jungian projection-instrument, a highly symbolic attempt to show the various aspects of human consciousness-

    What it shows us is samsara. Lots of samsara. And it really sucks. And the Wheel of Existence just shows the various levels of how bad samsara really sucks. There is a lot more attention paid to that as opposed to "Enlightened Consciousness".

    I am a health professional, and I'm not boasting here, but I've seen a lot of really incredible shit.

    I attended the presentation on the Bohdisattva Way and the Kalachakra Initiation by HH Dalai Lama in Santa Monica in 1989. The whole first week was the Bohdisattva Way, and we could pass up questions for HH to answer the next day. So I sent one up having to do with burnout in the helping professions, and like "is there something we can do to help us get up in the morning and go do that AGAIN?

    And HH just stopped, looked at the translator, and then looked out at the audience, and said "I couldn't bear it."

    Samsara is like that.

    But I leave you with the thought that samsara is perfect because it's not perfect. It gives us something to do.

    I got Beliefnet in my email this morning:

    Adverse circumstances test our courage, our strength of mind, and the depth of our conviction in the Dharma. There is nothing exceptional about practicing Dharma in a good environment and atmosphere. The true test is if we can maintain our practice in adverse conditions.

    -Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, "Advice From a Spiritual Friend"

  6. bob,

    Thanks. Having good "right nows" and delivering good "right nows" to others is valuable. Thank you for reminding me of that -- or introducing me to that. And, yes, I should know that there is not a parallel universe to inform me how valuable my good actions [and destructive my bad actions] really are. There's no telling.

    And I do have a problem expecting the future to be where things change and brighten, overlooking the whole of the universe that can only exist in the immediate moment.

  7. Anon,

    Generally, I have understood the idea of not being attached to the results of right action differently.

    If the point of your actions is properly to fix something, then the measure of whether your actions were right is the result. An auto repairman hired to fix someone's brakes should be attached to the idea of there not being a failure in the brakes when the car leaves the shop.

    Contrariwise, an accountant's responsibility is to the truth/validity of the books he's preparing or auditing. Thus, the Arthur Anderson accountants that audited Enron's books acted wrongly in allowing Enron management to report bogus fiscal success when in actuality things were dire.

    But you're right, I think, that we must not suppose that we can control all circumstances. Nonetheless, if we choose to engage ourself in helping someone, "helping them" -- and nothing else -- should be the point. I think we should be frustrated, then, when helping others is so elusive. You think?

    As for your quote from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, it alludes to a paradox. I buy the sentiment in the quote, but think we are supposed to live with the paradox.

    Even while "rising above samsara" is not our goal in Buddhism, our actions have to be in that direction. We have to look to fix things even as it is the nature of ordinary-mindedness to see only dukkha no matter how relatively better things get.

    Even if our lives have no point whatsoever, we must slog on through the snow because it's rocks' job, not ours, to be motionless. And yet, helping others and helping ourself is incredibly difficult, even when the path is opened up for us.

    It may be that helping the poor, especially, isn't adequately valued. And what we must do is impose population control to lower or hold steady world population. And then we must better know what to do, and do more, to make people productive and active and happy. It may be that we need controls on globalization to lessen extremes of income that produce grotesque wealth and dire poverty.

    These are great challenges to have, but I don't want the challenges, I want the fixes.

  8. Tom-

    (It's me, anon. I just couldn't decide on a handle last time.)

    There’s just the distinction between fixing things for a living, like brakes and money, but fixing people is a lot harder because there’s a lot more variables.

    I’m sure any Buddhist teacher with any sense would say it’s ok to be frustrated, because unless we’re bohdisattvas, we’re all “works in progress”. I mean, that frustration is there, but Buddhism teaches us to let go of that frustration as best we can. I mean, who is experiencing the frustration? Who is wasting brain chemicals and secreting too much stomach acid over the “fixing” not working? You are. Does the person that was the objective of the effort to “fix” lose any sleep over not being “fixed”? Probably not. Trying to be a friend of a chronic alcoholic is a good example of that. Does the alcoholic really want to be fixed? Some do, some don’t. I think the point of not being attached to the result of our attempts to help others is in large part because it takes time and energy to be frustrated, and that makes for negativity too.

    There’s an old Taoist story about a man whose horse ran away. When it happened, all his neighbors came over and said “Gee, it’s really awful that your horse ran away and so forth…” And the man said, “Maybe, maybe not.” The next day the horse came back and brought twenty really nice wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came and observed how really great it was that this guy now had all these new horses- and the man said, “Maybe, maybe not.” The next day the man’s son was out trying to break one of the horses, and got thrown off and broke his leg. All the neighbors came over and talked about how awful that was and so forth, and the man said, “Maybe, maybe not.”

    So finally, the next day the army came by conscripting young men to go fight in some war, and they didn’t take the man’s son because he had a broken leg.

    So if we help some child in Africa eat and get an education and not die of AIDS, we may get another Hitler or we may get another Buddha. Equal chance of each.

    I think there’s a lot to be said about living with paradoxes- it takes a lot of courage and builds a lot of character. But a paradox can be seen as something that’s resolved on a higher level of comprehension, and part of mind-training is to get to that higher level of comprehension. So whatever it is that’s frustrating you now might become more clear if you do enough mind-training.

    And you write “It may be that helping the poor, especially, isn't adequately valued. And what we must do is impose population control to lower or hold steady world population. And then we must better know what to do, and do more, to make people productive and active and happy. It may be that we need controls on globalization to lessen extremes of income that produce grotesque wealth and dire poverty.”

    What Buddhist would endeavor to “impose population control”? You’re talking about imposing population control and a planned, synchronized global economy. Gee.

    I think there are some good places to start in the world economy. A good farm tractor is about $150K. How many of those could we have sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, or Colombia even? And how about changing the major cash crop of the world to corn instead of opium or coke?

    When I think of what any of a number of Vajrayana teachers would say, it comes out as “maintaining a compassionate attitude is good for your mind-stream”.

    I have a poster of White Tara published in 1972, and below the copy of the thangka it says “May this tangka protect you in the present age of darkness.” They certainly have the “age of darkness” part right.

    Finally, there is a saying I’ve heard- and I’m not referring to those less fortunate as “pigs”, it’s just part of the saying:

    Never try to teach a pig to sing. It’s impossible, and it just annoys the pig.

  9. Bill, anon,

    [Mumon, Is that you?] Anyway, whomever you are, I somewhat accept your viewpoint, but, well, not really.

    I am a great admirer of people who care about what they're doing. While outcomes aren't assured, neither are they arbitrary. While it may be, and probably is the case, that we shouldn't bemoan what befalls us, we should both strive and care about what we do and I would maintain that 'a good ending' -- even while endings are never the end -- is something to seek.

    As for frustration, there is FRUSTRATION and then there is frustration. We mustn't let frustration wreck our lives, but having it can be valuable. If a bullet suddenly enters my leg, the pain is a good thing. It both lets me know something is wrong and alerts me of the urgency.

    While it is true we shouldn't attempt what's impossible too often, ["To dream the impossible dream; to beat the unbeatable foe; to bear with unbearable sorrow; to go where the brave dare not go. That is my quest ...] we shouldn't shy away from what is difficult.

    I would bet Bill that you've gone to undiscovered countries on occassion. People, including the bodhisattvas among us, are adventurers, seeking to cure. And we succeed ... sometimes, near impossibly.

  10. (I really am just some guy named Bill. I'm not Mumon.)

    Now that you make the distinction between degrees of frustration it appears that we're pretty much talking about the same thing.

    And if we're going to try to help people, we do have to kinda sorta have an idea of what the outcome might look like- and your view of frustration as a motivator is of course correct.

    I'm curious about what you mean by "undiscovered countries".

  11. Ok, Bill, great. i think we are on the same page.

    By "undiscovered countries" I only mean to allude to the idea of having a bit of a fools' hope to succeed. Sometimes longshots pay off.

    The idea comes from a Star Trek episode based on the end of the Soviet Empire.

  12. “One of the hardest things we must do sometimes,” writes Parker Palmer, “is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to ‘fix’ it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery.”

    Palmer, Parker J. (1999). Let your life speak: listening for the voice of vocation.

    I think it pithily buttresses Bill's sentiment, which seems correct and I should better accept.

    Found this is Peter Renner's blog, conscious living& conscious dying, "don't try to 'help' me."

  13. What a wonderful discussion. I am surrounded and involved with endless people with horrible problems and just like to add three things:
    1. Look at myself. What is wrong with me? Am i truly able to judge? These days am shocked by how much people don;t see of themselves (the sister) and so wonder about myslef...
    2. Samsara is perfect because it is the way it is. All these people who pain us, with whom we suffer can only be helped if they ask (as someone said) and when we do give/offer we have to accept that they will do what they want with it.
    3. Don't even wonder about the results, let alone expect anything...
    Thank you. Am just embarking on running one foundationa and working for another and sadly know that money is not the answer.