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Monday, June 23, 2008

Rational Self-Interest

I'm not a people person, never have been. I think other people don't particularly understand me, and I don't particularly care about other people. I care, of course, about my family and my friends, but at the end of the day, I've always sort of considered myself to be the most important person in my life. Sounds really selfish, doesn't it? But I don't think it is, really. I am the only person in my life that I HAVE to live with for my entire life, so it only makes sense that I look out for myself, my health, my needs above anyone else's. And I think everyone else should do the same, too.

There are exceptions, of course. The moment you become a parent is the moment your life stops being all about you and starts being about your child. After 18-20 years or so, once your kid grows up and assumes control of her own life, then you can reclaim yourself as the center of your life, but until then your needs are no longer of top importance.

The philosophy of Objectivism, based largely on the writings on Ayn Rand, runs along these same lines, only instead of using terms like self-centered and selfish, Objectivists call it rational self-interest. I can't explain this very well, because the extent of my exposure to Objectivism was a short few weeks in which I joined the Objectivist Club at the U of U in order to stalk a boy in the club whom I had a crush on. I just remember being able to relate to our discussions on rational self-interest during my brief attendance at club meetings.

Anyway, the bottom line is I want to shoulder my own burdens, and I don't want a part in carrying the burdens of others. You know the old adage that goes something like: "Catch a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life"? I really like that saying. If there were something I could do for someone along the lines of teaching them to fish, I would be willing to do that, but I feel too often people just want me to give them a fish, and I see how futile that is.

Say you have a relative who doesn't have good money management skills. They never seem to have enough money to pay the bills, but they still manage to eat out frequently and buy new clothes and electronics. They still take vacations and drive expensive vehicles. They get raises at work, and adjust spending accordingly, digging themselves deeper into debt. And sometimes they ask you for a "loan" to help them keep their head above water. You oblige, and maybe you are even realistic enough to know that they are never going to pay back what you lent them. You are happy to help, even if deep down you feel a little resentful that they are taking advantage of your generosity with no intention of getting their finances in order. You throw them a fish every now and then, but they will always have a need for more. If you really want your money to do them any good, you'll teach them to fish by buying them a session or two with a financial counselor who will help them understand how finances work, and help them formulate a plan to decrease spending, increase savings, and pay off debt.

Ok, so here's my dilemma: I have this neighbor in my complex who is in a bad situation. She's a middle aged woman from Venezuela, moved to the U.S. quite young, stays here on a Visa. Has no phone, no car, can barely afford food, doesn't seem to have an adequate winter coat. Has a teenage daughter who either ran away from home, or was taken away by social services, or was kidnapped, depending on the version she tells on a given day. She has asked to use my phone on multiple occasions, which I have obliged. In the winter, she asked me a couple times to drive her to a location a few blocks away. Ok, not really happy about becoming a personal driver, but it's not that big of a deal to go a few blocks. Now she has asked me to drive her to Sandy to get papers to renew her Visa, and I told her I didn't know if I could do it. I don't want to do it. Maybe it's not that big of a deal, but I don't want to spend my Saturday morning driving this woman 100 blocks away, and I don't want to open the door for her to keep asking more of me. Besides, the Trax goes very near to where she's trying to go.

I feel bad for her situation, I really do. But I didn't ask to get involved, and I really don't want to be involved. I'm just not the right person to come to about things like this; I'm not the right stuff for it. There's a reason that I've lived in my apartment for seven years and still I don't know any of my neighbors. I don't want to get involved in someone's life simply because I live by them. I just want to be left alone, and I want to leave others alone.

And I can't see any of the things I can do for this woman as being anything other than throwing her a fish. There are systems set up to help people like this, there is low income housing, welfare, employment services, food stamps, paratransit. The Mormon Church helps people in her situation, and she was telling me she's with the Church, so I don't see why she can't go to them. I don't want to stand in for any of these things. And I don't see how I can teach her to fish.

Does that make me a bad person? Am I bad because I don't want to help?

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Sov said...

I've helped friends financially before and never expected a return. I have one friend in particular that owes me at least $600, but I know I'll never see that money. I'm ok with that.

Does it make you feel good to help this woman? Does she thank you and seem genuinely grateful? I think the question you have to ask, is she trying to make a better life for herself? Is she honestly trying to get to a point where she could be self-sufficient? Perhaps she's not there yet. Maybe she prays at night to the Mormon god and when she does, she mentions you as a positive force in her life. Maybe she reveres you in a way.

Or possibly she just sees you as a means to an end. Maybe she's just using you. TRAX does indeed run to Sandy. Maybe a little nudge is what she needs. Instead of driving her, give her $3.50 for the ticket and directions to the office. Teach her to fish, in a sense.

The Church has billions upon billions of dollars. Primarily, they waste it on new temples and downtown shopping malls. I would think that a spiritual organization would be more than willing to help a poor immigrant. This would also serve to confirm her belief in the Church. It's a win-win for both parties.

If this woman has been here for decades and is still in this situation, she obviously doesn't know how to fish. Either no one has taught her, or she refuses to learn. I would assume the latter, but that's speculation without adequate data. Does she have any friends? If she attends church, surely she has some MoFriends who can help her. I always thought part of being religious is helping your fellow man.

Either way, you've done the right thing up until this point.

Sra said...

It doesn't really make me feel good to help this woman. I feel resentful, and then I feel guilty that I don't want to help, even if I begrudgingly do so. But she has thanked me, and says she thinks I am a kind person. She's wrong about that, and since I haven't really held up my end of the conversation, maybe it's just because I let her speak to me that she thinks I'm kind.

I know all that I know about her because, when I do help her out, she talks and talks about her situation, and I don't ask about anything, because I don't want to encourage a relationship, but she just spills it anyway. We don't even know each other's names.

She has told me that she doesn't have any friends, and she doesn't go to church because the father of her daughter, who was a "good" RM Mormon abused her and threatened to hurt her daughter, so she lost the faith.

My honest opinion? She doesn't have friends because she is too needy. She talks to people when she needs something from them, or when she wants a sympathetic ear. Most people are turned off by neediness, and I'm no exception.

I think I will take your advice and try to think of ways I can help that don't make me feel put out or taken advantage of. I just don't want to offer myself up as a driver. I'm simply not willing to do it.

Ben Sloan said...

Rational self interest is just that- rational. If you lack it, the needy people of the world will suck you dry.

There is a relative of mine that my mom has been helping out all her life. She lived with us for a while when I was younger. Then she left. Then she came back. Did a bunch of stupid shit, took off, eventually came back. Always asking for money. She did this repeatedly, for years, and my mother always acquiesced, always gave her money, free room and board. And it's not like we ever had it- my mom was bleeding herself to help her, giving money she didn't have.

Long story short, about two weeks after a last ditched effort to help her through an intervention, she ended up ODing while with some random dude in my parents' hot tub, went into an enormous seizure, left in an ambulance and was never welcome back.

Before that, her father was staying with us, free of course, until we found out he was stealing from us every day. We eventually had to escort him out of the house.

The point is, while there are truly innocent, needy people in this world, the vast majority (at least in the developed world)are needy because they refuse to take responsibility for themselves, and feel entitled to the perpetual assistance of others. My mother is far too kind and trusting, and has repeatedly been scarred by it, injured even.

It is only intelligent and dutiful for you to not be an enabler. Helping others is a wonderful thing, and a vital function in civilized society, but the best way you can help that woman is to let her take responsibility for herself. Sometimes there comes a point when you have to say, "NO."

Sra said...

I appreciate that response, Ben, thank you. Sometimes it's hard to discern whether someone is truly needy or whether they are needy because they aren't taking adequate responsibility for themselves. I tend to err on the side of cautiousness, and I guess I just go by my gut feeling. I feel that only people who have truly tried to solve their problems themselves but have failed deserve assistance.

Based on my interactions with this woman over the past several months, it seems that the more I give, the more she asks of me, and that's not what I want to encourage. If anything, if you are truly helping someone, the level of requested assistance should decrease over time.

I'm going to try to set firm limits to what I will do for her.

heidikins said...

You are not a bad person. You're human.


Adam said...

Not really appropos of anything you said (which is sort of my MO on blog comments), I adhere to the Marxian doctrine of fishing.

"Sell a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you've ruined a wonderful business opportunity."

And yes, I am this big of an idiot.

Sra said...

Thanks Heidi, I appreciate that.

Adam, love the Marxist version of the fishing thing, thanks for sharing it!

Karen said...

There's asking for a favor, and then there's taking advantage.

I think this situation qualifies as the latter. I'd give her $5 for a bus ticket, or whatever, and wish her luck.

Natalie said...

we deal with a lot of people in similar situations here. many are refugees and can't officially work. they can clean houses, paint, and do other kinds of jobs like that. and we see both kinds. those who try hard to take care of their family...willing to take whatever jobs they can get to put food on the table, and people who refuse to do some jobs because they think they are above that kind of work. i never mind helping those who are trying to help themselves as well. it's the others that drive me crazy. the ones who complain about how horrible their lives are, yet they do nothing to try and change it.

Sra said...

These comments are all very reassuring and helpful. Thanks, guys.

Zac said...

Variant I saw online in somebody's signature line: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and an international fishing corporation will buy the rights to the lake, hire him to fish out three times the fish for ten times the work, then when the lake's exhausted, they'll cancel his benefits and leave him to starve since his services aren't needed anymore. So give him the damn fish already."

Not that I disagree with your choice not to go out of your way for this person.

Sra said...

That's a pretty nice version of the saying. Damn corporate greed.

The Over-Thinker said...

I think you're doing the right thing.

I have a very easy time of saying Yes. It's saying No that constantly trips me up.

Sra said...

I think most people have a hard time saying No. Our culture is too full of people pleasing and guilt tripping. If everyone practiced rational self interest we might have an easier time saying no and not feeling guilty for doing so.

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