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The limits of compassion

My phone rang Wednesday night. I’d laid down around 9, intending to just call it a night, because I was tired. It was 9:30 when the phone rang. I thought about not picking up, but something told me I should. I was glad I did.
It was someone I admire a lot, a relative. She works with a lot of disadvantaged people. She told me about some of them. One woman she works with can’t afford to buy groceries. But the last time she visited her, she was excited. “You gotta see my TV!” she said.

She wasn’t impressed. If anything, she was a bit appalled. We’re talking someone who’s perfectly happy with a 10-year-old Sony 19″ TV and an antenna made from aluminum foil by Yours Truly sometime last summer. But this woman who can’t afford to buy groceries had a big-screen TV and super-premium cable with a couple hundred channels. She asked how she could afford it. “Rent-a-Center,” came the reply.

“You know,” I said. “One of my teachers way back when said that if the government came in, seized all the money in the country, then handed everyone an equal amount, within 15 years everyone would be unequal again, and the money would pretty much be back in the same hands it was before.”

“Because some people do things like make TV a higher priority than groceries,” she said.

Some people have next to nothing because they spend what they do have so frivolously. She said she doesn’t feel sorry for those people. But other people have next to nothing, have their priorities straight, but still don’t have enough to make ends meet. I knew one of those stories. She moved, and when she moved, she forgot to get the name on the utilities changed. So her former landlord went in and cranked the heat, running up a nice four-figure bill. She’s slowly paying the debt down now. It’s easy for me to sympathize with her, having a psycho ex-landlord in my past as well. Fortunately for me, my psycho ex-landlord is dumber than rocks, but I know that’s not always the case. I haven’t met this woman, and I probably never will, but I did what I could to help her. It wasn’t much, but it was the right thing to do.

She knows another woman who had to come up with $350 by Friday to keep her car from being repo’ed. And that was the dilemma she called me about.

“You or I could just write a check, straight up,” she said. She’s right. While not exactly pocket change to either of us, I know I spend about $150 a month just eating out. I could adjust for an unexpected $350 expense without much trouble. I could give up eating out, eating meat, and drinking soda for a month and probably save $200. But I probably wouldn’t. I might give something up, but I’d just dip into savings and get on with it.

Which raises a question: When is it right to help someone out? Doesn’t God want us to help our neighbor?

The answer, of course, is yes. But that just raises another question: How much?

Chances are, if I knew the needs of everyone around me and I met all of them, I’d have nothing left. I saw it at work earlier this year. For a while I was working 50-55 hours a week and still falling behind. Finally someone sat me down and told me that at 55 hours a week, I was running myself into the ground and at the rate I was going would soon be no good to myself or anyone else. I listened, for once, and backed off. What I found was that I could work 40-45 hours a week and be productive. I got more done in 45 hours than I could get done in 55, because I was fresh.

So the answer is, no, you don’t meet every need of every person you know.

Then I asked what everyone expected of her. Her boss expected her to open up lines of communication and listen. Done. This woman asked her to look into whether there was help available for her. She started doing that too.

“So you have helped her,” I said.

And I think she did the right thing. Most people make you earn the right to help them. They don’t want a big favor until you’ve proven that you’re trustworthy, won’t ask something completely unreasonable in return, and won’t nag them about it every time a cloud moves.

And sometimes you just know what to do. I can’t explain it, but you probably understand. You find yourself in a situation and it’s like you were born knowing what to give.

Come later today, if this woman asks for fifty bucks, should she give it? I’m inclined to say yes.

And if the day passes and this woman doesn’t ask for anything, should she feel guilty? No.

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