Today’s Writing 101 asks us to compare and contrast. The title is literally “Give and Take” and so, I have decided to take the author’s cue.
Last Sunday a thin man of foreign comportment approached me and asked for me help. It turns out that he had locked his keys in his car while it was running and was looking to get some in getting back into his car. Luckily I belonged to AAA (the American Automobile Association). I called, and in about half an hour a gentlemen showed up and opened his car. Problem solved, good deed done, and all was right with the world.
Contrast that with me having to ask for help. It was the beginning of 2006. I had finished graduate school a year before and was having trouble looking for work. I was working retail part-time and trying to hold on. I was 35 and just getting by. I also needed a new car thanks to a wreck that totaled my old one. I asked for a loan from a local bank and was turned down. My mother, God rest her soul, offered to co-sign for a loan. I wasn’t in a position to refuse. I got the loan and the car, but it was a deeply shameful moment for me. Yes, I was in a tough spot economically, and yes, she was my mother, and that’s what mothers and other family members do for one another. But I felt like I had lost face. Receiving help was humiliating to me.
In short, the belief that has been ingrained to me, the contrast, is this: If I give help, I am virtuous; If I take help I weak and morally deficient. I speak only for myself here. The gentleman who locked his keys in his car, for example, was in a dire situation. His need for help was born of circumstance.
None of this is to say that pure altruism doesn’t exist. It does, but it’s also exceedingly rare. Even the fabled Golden Rule, which appeared consistently in every major world religion or philosophy, isn’t purely altruistic. On the contrary, the exhortation to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is based on reciprocity. It’s telling you to treat others generously because that’s the best way to ensure that you are treated generously. Ethical and moral rules can often be difficult to follow in reality, but this rule is based on very practical assumption.
Still, there’s a power dynamic at work in many offers and acceptances that we don’t like to talk about. Giving implies you can afford to be generous. And again, this implies a degree of affluence and affluence implies being moral. Needing and/or asking for help implies need, and need implies weakness. And the weak can be exploited. Asking for help makes us vulnerable. We are beholden to someone else. This doesn’t have to sinister, of course. The patron-client relationship many prominent Roman families had with the follower was of great mutual benefits to the parties involved, but it did limit one’s options, and that can feel more than a bit claustrophobic. It hampers our ability to act on our instinct to pull up stakes and move elsewhere, sometimes literally, to flee, when we believe it be in our best interests. And none of this even touches how this dynamic ties into issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class et al.
Again, I’m not saying that giving help is never done out of a pure desire to aid another. And it’s certainly not the case that receiving help is proof that someone is lacking in character or moral fiber. But, to deny that giving and receiving help exists in a vacuum is to be dangerously naive. Often times this giving and taking is bound up and continues to bind us to old traditions and established social order. It’s worth it to go back and reexamine why you did or did not help another and why you did or did not accept help yourself. The reasons may have more to do with old social habits than they do with actual need. It’s a question worth asking.