Mini-Feature: Who Should You Help?

Be careful where you set your sights

Is it more important to help yourself, help your family, help your society, or help the world?

To me, helping the world is more a made-up fantasy than something people can do. Like it would help world carbon emissions a lot if we dropped EMPs on China and India, but that seems unlike what people think of as helping the world. Yet many powerful people think population control really helps the world. I think “helping the world” is a stand-in for other things really on people’s minds.

There are difficulties with society too in this sense. What is society and what isn’t? Much of what is to be done according to the main movement for “helping society”—the social justice movement—ends up to be turning more and more of other things INTO society: dissolving the family into society, subjecting the conscience or previous religions into society, etc. To me, the tautology in so many self appointed social helpers  concluding that society most needs more society and more of themselves throws permanent doubt on the supposed superiority of their unit of ethical analysis to others.

Now everybody knows that family is difficult, and romantic notions of family life routinely lead to much pain and bitterness and lives in some scarring sense squandered. But ridding oneself of family generally sucks, as those who stubbornly praise their friends or team or coworkers as “like family” seem to indicate, because there is no escaping except for the tiny few a permanent gut longing for family, even a screwed up one, and while “choosing your family” is paraded as an improvement on being stuck with one, all families only persist in generational time as a result of people’s choices about how (and with whom) to keep them going. Helping family continue is in this sense not just important, but inevitable. If you’re not helping yours along, you’re helping someone else’s. On the other hand, there are times as we all know when we hit limits of what we can do to help our family and its members.

In such times we often fall back on ourselves. The self is often easier to berate or slap around into doing important things than other family members. And certainly if you refuse or just fail to help yourself at all you will drag down your family and everyone else with the misfortune of being around you. But helping your family is in a primal sense more honorable than helping yourself—there are times when your duty to help others, especially in your family, exceeds your duty to help yourself. Helping others, including your family, is often an emergency in a way helping yourself is not. Part of helping yourself is ensuring you rarely experience an emergency of needing your own help.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

It's most important we placate Quetzalcoatl.

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

Share American Mindset

There is a delicate balance between what is now called "self-care"—which, interpreted as charitably as possible, means engagement in activities meant to edify and rejuvenate oneself rather than anyone else—and the application of the energies we derive from leisure of that kind to their proper end, which is serving others and God. The rough-and-ready rule of thumb is to remember that you are built to love God and neighbor, and will find joy in that if you direct all your energies toward it. But balance that with an understanding that you are a limited creature, with creaturely needs including not just things like food but also more spiritual forms of nourishment like prayer and reading. You will do more good for everyone if you take care to satisfy those needs from time to time—and extra bonus points if, in the process, you let those who love you care for you in return, thus fulfilling their own divine mandate. The economy of heaven is quite masterful that way.

But one thing I feel firmly that you should not do is help "the world." People who do that have usually been duped by an unrealistic vision of their importance in human events, and led by overgeneralized abstractions to perform atrocities in their native environment which they believe will have knock-on effects "globally." They won't. They're just atrocities. Do good in your immediate environs and you will be forced to reckon with the actual success or failure of your efforts. Serve "humanity" and you will become incapable of seeing real humans, with particular wants and needs—only units of a vast and amorphous collective which you are "helping" by ... what? Indoctrinating people into some totalizing theory of gender or race? Spare me.

The Davos men say "eliminate global poverty." Jesus says "the poor you will always have with you"—so get to serving them in this moment, not in some imagined utopian future that you are building by making people miserable in the here and now. The Greek word translated as "neighbor" (plēsion) literally means "the near one." Who was the neighbor of the man left bloody and robbed on the side of the road? The Samaritan, who stopped on his way and drew near. Seek the good of the city in which you find yourself, and don't help "the world." It's beyond any help you can give.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind