There is a Chinese proverb that states:
Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, he feeds himself for a lifetime.
I would like to add to that: Give a man a fish every day and you’ll need to feed him for a lifetime.
I think that covers the difference between charity, help, and enabling.
Charity is to give something to someone with no strings attached and with no expectations. Whatever you offer is given free and clear and the recipient has no obligation to do anything in return. A little charity here and there is a good thing. People get themselves into bad situations and need a little kindness. Natural disasters put people in terrible conditions they could have never anticipated. It’s a decent thing to offer charity to victims of unfortunate events.
However, some unfortunate events were either preventable, or are very likely to recur. Charity is a good first start when we’re talking about those situations, but you should discontinue the charity rather quickly and move right into Help instead. Help differs from Charity in that there are expectations. What you are offering is education, assistance, preventative measures, or some other gift that will allow the victim to elevate him or herself to the status of survivor, rather than stay in a victim role. We give hurricane and tornado survivors immediate Charity in the form of a food, clothing, and shelter, but then we offer them Help in the form of rebuilding their home, perhaps in a safer location; finding a new job, perhaps requiring advanced education; or reaching out and getting connected to their community in a way where fellow survivors will be helping each other.
Finally, there are lots of unfortunate circumstances in which people find themselves that are utterly and completely their fault. A life-long drinker crashes his car and gets arrested for drunk driving, a woman with 3 children by 2 different fathers finds herself pregnant a 4th time, a young man who smokes pot every day hates his job at the gas station but he can’t find other work because he didn’t finish high school… Perhaps there were others in their lives who contributed to their problems – their parents, their grandparents, their husbands or wives, or even their friends, but at some point, they must be considered to be an adult and responsible for their own actions.
So, in those cases, should we provide Charity or Help? Chances are, the answer is ‘no.’ But isn’t that heartless? No, because my guess is that each and every one of them has had more than their fair share of both Charity and Help prior to today and that they have gotten so much “help” from too many people over the years, that they have never learned to Help themselves. Too much help to people who are not learning from their mistakes is known as Enabling and it is NOT helpful.
Our lifelong drinker has been in trouble long before today. He’s been taken home by friends, covered for by spouses and girlfriends, cut slack by employers. People have ‘helped’ him enough and he’s abused their generosity. The woman with the children has probably been given some help by each of the men she’s slept with, even the ones that haven’t fathered her children. She’s been given help by the government, and perhaps by several charity organizations. She’s learned that she doesn’t really have to take care of herself or her children, someone else will come along and do it. Our pot smoking pump jockey has at least learned to take care of himself by working to support his marijuana habit, but I’m guessing his parents come along and throw $200 at him when his car needs new tires or when he has to have a tooth removed. It seems helpful to them because who doesn’t need car maintenance or dental work? However, their ‘charity’ only Enables him to spend his money on marijuana while he spends their money on his car and teeth. None of that is truly helpful. It only Enables the individual to stay irresponsible.
Ultimately, the Enabler must also be held accountable for the actions of the person they continue to Enable. When the car crashes, not only is the drunk husband accountable, but also the enabling wife. When a 4th illegitimate child is born, not only is Momma at fault, but each of the men who have had unprotected sex with her and everyone who votes to support multiple children to unwed mothers. And, the parents of the pot smoker need to be held at least partially responsible when their high son accidentally leaves the gas station unlocked and burglars rob the place, losing thousands of dollars of the owner’s money.
If you choose to Enable someone who is living an unwise and unsafe lifestyle, you better be ready to be held responsible for some of the consequences of their actions. To truly Help them, you may need to cut off the Charity altogether.