I have a simple philosophy for life – If I can help you, and I refuse to help you, I am now hurting you.
Here’s an example. You’re on fire and I have a bucket of water. I happen to pass by and notice that you are on fire. I say “Wow, I’m sorry you’re on fire, that looks terribly painful, but I might need this bucket of water later. I might catch on fire myself. I might get thirsty. I might see some flowers I want to water.” Now, by refusing to put out your fire, even though I clearly have the ability to do so, I am burning you. I am harming you.
This is why I don’t have a lot of patience for people who say things like “Oh of course I’d love to help the homeless … once I graduate and get a good job.” Or “I’ll donate more when I get a promotion.” That sentiment doesn’t hold up very well if you’re thinking about people being on fire. Would you say that to someone you passed on the street? “Hey man, I’d love to throw this bucket of water on you but I’m about to be late to work, good luck though!”
And it turns out, I don’t much care about the origins of your fire. Maybe someone set you on fire. Maybe you stood too close to a fire. Maybe you habitually bathe in kerosene and set yourself on fire. Maybe you’ve been on fire many many times before. It doesn’t matter to me. I believe you have a fundamental human right to not be on fire. And of course, if you are the kind of person who sets yourself on fire a lot, I wish you would stop, and maybe I will suggest that you go to a Firestarters Anonymous group, but that’s not a condition of me putting out your fire. It’s just a suggestion, and you’re under no obligation to take it.
One counter-argument I hear a lot is “Charity starts at home. Put on your own gas mask first.” And to that I say BS. I can admit that our lives are a bit unstable. Yes it’s true that we eat a lot of rice and eggs, but we have the ability to buy the rice and eggs in the first place, and cook them, privileges that many people go without. Yes our housing situation is somewhat less than ideal, but we are housed. We sleep in relative safety, warmth, and comfort, while others sleep in tents or underneath bridges.
If we are on fire, it is a small fire, perhaps a small ember caught in the tread of my boot. And while I try to dislodge this ember and stomp it out, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth for me to look at someone ablaze from head to toe and say “Sorry I can’t help you, I’m on fire too.”
Critics have told me that I’m allowing other people to take advantage of me, simply because I don’t ask to see proof of how bad the fire is before I give my bucket of water. Do people lie and exaggerate? Probably some do. But maybe people lie because no one believed them the first time. Maybe they lie because they’re tired of being told “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and fetch your own water.” Maybe they lie because it’s painful and exhausting to BE ON FIRE and have people look at you like it’s your fault, to have people watch you with disgust in their eyes as you burn to death in front of them.
To torture this metaphor a little further, I have found that I am very flame-resistant. Through some accident of genetics and upbringing and geography, I don’t catch on fire very easily. I’m no more or less deserving than anyone else – I didn’t earn my flame-resistance – I’m just lucky. Oh sure, I might have that little ember caught in my boot tread I mentioned earlier, but experience has taught me that it’s very unlikely to blossom into a raging inferno.
But many other people are not so lucky. They are highly flammable. And as the lucky flame resistant person, the only way I can live with myself is to acknowledge that luck is un-earned and random, and try to put out as many fires as I can. I try not to lord my flame-resistant status over others.
In an ideal world, no one would catch on fire in the first place. But in this world, I hope I can inspire people who have buckets of water to be a little more generous with them. And I hope I can give comfort to those who have been on fire, or will be on fire again. I want to say to them “I see you and your fire. I will not ignore you. I will not blame you. I will put your fire out.”