When Good Intentions Backfire

I think all of us start out in life wanting to help others. Over time that empathy and compassion can change for a number of reasons, but generally ‘well-doing’ is replaced by ‘minding my own business.’ Sitting outside my favorite cafe, “Upstart Crow,” I was tossing bits of my baguette to the little sparrows waiting patiently just a few feet away.

“Stop doing that,” Mike, the guy with me said sternly. “You’re creating a worsening bird problem for the people who come to enjoy eating outdoors!”

When I handed the disheveled man on the corner of a busy intersection a couple of bucks, my buddy in the passenger seat said, “Now that guy will go buy a bottle of booze, get liquored up, perhaps commit a crime, and you’re an accessory.”

Last year a woman connected with me on LinkedIn. She asked for prayer, saying that her mother, who had been homeless, was living with her and dying of stage four pancreatic cancer. Elida quit her job to care for her mother. Exchanging messages turned into phone calls, which in turn led me to give financially to help Elida and her mother.

Over the course of a year and a half I began to sense a pattern. Elida would call. She was in tears. Before the call ended she had managed to get me to send more money. She texted pictures of her mother and profuse thanks for all the help.

But it finally became apparent to me that I had been yet one more victim of an elaborate ruse — the entire charade was nothing more than a scam and I cut off the money, which had added up to thousands of dollars at that point.

More recently — again LinkedIn — Joe was reaching out for help. He was homeless and living on the streets in Las Vegas. He needed to get to San Diego where he was certain his construction skills would land him a paying job. He set up a GoFundMe.com account and raised almost $1,000, much of it from me by the way. I even shared his plea with my other LI connections.

In San Diego, which happens to be only 90 miles from where I live in Orange County, he looked for work and spent time at Denny’s and Starbuck’s, but nothing was coming to him in terms of work. Joe had another friend, Jeff, who was phoning him and encouraging him, but Joe became increasingly dejected and seemed to be losing hope. Jeff asked me to call Joe and try to encourage him to hold onto hope. I did so, but Joe seemed angry at people in general, blaming them for the situation he found himself in.

Last night Jeff contacted me. It was raining in San Diego and Joe had nowhere to stay. I asked about the homeless shelters and rescues throughout that area. Fully one quarter of the homeless in America are here in California. So while many still are not getting adequate care, the resources here are pretty good. But Joe did not want to stay there, he said he felt he would be safer in a hotel.

I called Joe and he was angry and dejected, he was cold, and it was raining last night in San Diego. When I suggested the rescue missions he responded angrily that they’re unsafe and now too far away from where he was at the moment. So I asked him to walk to a hotel and he did so. When he got there one hotel was about $140/night, the other $160/night. So Motel 6 these were not. But the hotel clerk would not accept my credit card over the phone.

Joe was furious. With me! “You should have booked this for me earlier, through Priceline or some other way, now I am screwed, cold and wet!”  I told him he should have accepted the shelters and made his way over to these missions instead of demanding that people put him up in nice hotel rooms on a moment’s notice. Well, that was the end of my relationship with Joe, just as I have never again heard from Elida.

In June I am traveling to Hanoi to visit Dr. Ho. I have supported this retired doctor’s work for at least the past five years. He fits prosthetics on the needy for free, not for cosmetic reasons but purely for function so they can obtain work. This will be the first time I am face-to-face with Dr. Ho in his clinic. But I have tried to lower my expectations so that I will not be disappointed. You see, I am also finding that my good intentions oftentimes backfire, and a bad situation really is made worse by my involvement.

This is a tough place to be, a fork in the road of life for me. What have I learned? Should I just mind my own business and leave people to sort out their own personal needs on their own? Should I donate anonymously and not get personally involved, though I wouldn’t know exactly what good my money might have done…

I think we all have gifts. Some of us have the gift of exhortation. They say just the right thing at the right time to settle differences among people arguing. Others are gifted by their patience and kindness, almost never getting upset and never giving up reaching out to help those in need. My gift has been generosity. I enjoy being generous. I love to give, whether it is money or something I no longer use, or something I think another person might enjoy more than I do.

But with our giving comes a great responsibility. If we are unprepared for the problems and backlash, the scams, the ungratefulness and the hostility that sometimes comes when one must humble themselves in order to receive freely the help of others; if we only expect thanks and friendship, we are going to get hurt.

The greatest gift that I know of was the Cross of Christ. For while we were still in rebellion against God, Christ died for us to reconcile us back to Him so we could have the hope of heaven.

So for me personally, each major setback I have in this life’s journey that has included helping others, I am keenly aware of the need to guard my heart. I don’t want to become cynical and insensitive. I want to be just as ready to help the next person as I helped the last one. But it has been tough medicine and hard lessons learned, that many people will respond with resentment and reproach. And pushing on with charity in the face of all that has turned out to be one of my greatest challenges in life.