Thursday, January 21, 2010

The difficulty helping people


[I originally posted this to another blog in December 2007.  Except that the book A Farewell to Alms is no longer "recent," as I wrote, then, I couldn't find anything else I would change.]
I would like to get into something very basic to Buddhism, that has certainly been explored, but to my admittedly-very-limited knowledge, hasn’t been pulled together very well.

Why is it so damn hard to help people?

One would think that it would be THE fundamental thing to do, of great help to the world at large. One would think that if you can give someone or some group or some nation that one simple, timely leg-up, he or they or it would go on to reach his/their/its full potential, and the benefits from that would ripple out into the world and there would be this cascade of goodness and good news.

But it is hard to help people. They fall into their ruts and pour concrete around their feet ... or so it seems.

The book A Farewell to Alms looks into the issue on the macro-scale, helping Third World countries, addressing question like Why, with all the money we pour into Africa and Iraq and Bangladesh, and elsewhere, do things remain essentially unchanged?

The author believes that aid delivered to dirt-poor countries gets diverted to feeding the problems instead of curing them. While aid, well directed, can have immediate benefits ― feeding the hungry, classically ― it also props up the corruption that is in place and any improved standard of living that might come gets overwhelmed by the high levels of birth and, thus, population increase endemic to impoverished peoples. And that drags the country down much more than anything can lift it up.

Truly, the idea of improvement to one’s standard of living is a new condition, first found in London of the 1820s. We animals, be us fleas or humans, rat or polar bears, will take whatever good fortune comes our way and turn it into a population boom that returns us to our natural state: poverty. That is, until affluence can take hold, for a spell, and our selfish interest in personal comforts and diversions can make us want to have a very limited number of offspring.

Global Warming and the disaster from that that seems unavoidable may just be another instance of a species wending its way back to its natural condition, living at the edge, or beyond the edge, of apocalypse.

But even if population control ― something that is out of flower [Whatever happened to ZPG, Zero Population Growth, a group that was out there beating the bushes in the 70s and 80s?] ― is the way to deliver us from world problems, long term, how can we help individuals, now!?

I look at my family and friends and myself and acquaintances past and think ‘what a menagerie of the lost and troubled.’ Each of us, in ways unique, is a cesspool of a sort with a mighty horrible end looming.

One friend of mine, from high school, was one of the most fun, upbeat people you could know. He was editor of the school paper and went on to get a degree in journalism. But like his parents, he liked alcohol. And in jobs he sought where he worked independently ― as an acquisitions editor, notably, repeatedly ― he slacked off and drove his budding career into the ground. In his personal life, he is alienated from his wife (now exxed) and daughter. A mutual friend of ours has helped ‘set him up’ again in life, guaranteeing his rent, and he’s gotten a rather menial job, but he‘s not fun anymore. He means to be fun, but it is like he is pitifully still in 12th grade with interests others of us have long since moved beyond. And he drinks, and we're tired of that.

Another example: My sister is on one level a great success ― vice president at one of the nation’s biggest banks at 25. But she is such a beast that a quarter century later ― while still with the bank and now a higher-level vice president ― she has been relieved of having others report to her. My sister and I had been only at the bare margins of each other’s lives, until the effects of aging began to drag down our mother. It is hard to know if the “evil” my sister does is by intention or due to some kind of emotional blindness, but everything she does is destructive and hurtful. Without going into details, she truly is a monster and is a prime reason for my interest in sociopaths. Is she one? I wonder. Is her long-time demonstrated affection for dogs just an act? It is hard to find compassion in her behavior or anything she does that can be explained by something other than selfishness. Significant others in her life have been kindly women she fully dominates and grinds down.

I could easily come up with a dozen other examples of people in my life who are flawed and entrapped and won’t be helped or can’t be helped by some bizarre, unique-seeming circumstance. Readers, I’d bet there is a menagerie of people like that in your life: People who had little tell-tale tics as little kids that grew into grotesque personality burdens that seem to have devoured them.

They can’t be helped, it seems. It’s like that, everywhere. At the workplace, there are people who have habits or addictions or areas of blindness that keep them from doing a good job. On the streets, there are people who have fallen. You want to pick them up and save them, but you can’t. Yet, until we can help each other we are surely doomed to endless cycles of destruction.

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