Sometimes Trying to Help Makes Things Worse

Ever try to help and make things worse? You’re not alone. Maybe sometimes good intentions are truly not enough. A Talmudic debate explores the importance of good intentions. helping image

There was a debate: the first teacher held that in order to fulfill a mitzvah (commandment / good deed) one needs the proper intention; Rabbi Gamliel held that one does not need the proper intention (Eruvin 95b).

In one passage, Rabbi Shimon declared the most wise person to be “one who considers the outcome of a deed” (Pirke Avot 2:13). St. Augustine once wrote that “Good intentions pave the path to hell.” We, of course, should truly have good and pure motivations and intentions for our moral work. But more importantly, we must work toward good consequences. Perhaps the most tragic case is when one attempts to help and actually makes things worse for the vulnerable.

Consider this tragic case in Haiti:   haiti famine

Haiti’s cholera epidemic, now entering its fourth year, has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000. It is a calamity, though one fundamentally different from the earthquake, hurricanes and floods that have beset the fragile country since 2010. It is, instead, a man-made disaster, advocates for Haitian victims contend, asserting the epidemic is a direct result of the negligence of United Nations peacekeepers who failed to keep their contaminated sewage out of a river from which thousands of Haitians drink.

U.S. Food aid is another important example. All too often our aid has helped American business while wiping out local business infrastructure in the area being served. That country then becomes dependent upon U.S. products. Peter Greer, the President & CEO of Hope International, suggests:

Anyone that’s been involved in philanthropy eventually comes to that point. When you try to help, you try to give things, you start to have the consequences. There’s an author Bob Lupton, who really nails it when he says that when he gave something the first time, there was gratitude; and when he gave something a second time to that same community, there was anticipation; the third time, there was expectation; the fourth time, there was entitlement; and the fifth time, there was dependency. That is what we’ve all experienced when we’ve wanted to do good. Something changes the more we just give hand-out after hand-out. Something that is designed to be a help actually causes harm.

Consider some adult reactions to child obesity:

Parents and other adults who are “only trying to help” may do harm rather than good, as a recent study from the journal Pediatrics makes clear. More than 350 teens who had attended one of two weight-loss camps filled out detailed questionnaires about their experiences of being victimized because of their weight. It found, not surprisingly, that nearly all heavier teenagers are teased or bullied about their weight by peers. What was surprising was the number of teenagers who said they have experienced what amounts to bullying at the hands of trusted adults, including coaches and gym teachers (42 percent) and, most disturbingly, parents (37 percent).

helping image 2This phenomenon does not only occur on an international basis, of course. Ever tried to offer a sincere apology and actually made things worse?

We must move beyond sympathy. Susan Sontag explains:

So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a consideration of how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways that we prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only the initial spark (Regarding the Pain of Others).

The last thing others who are vulnerable need are overbearing and self-serving advice, or thoughtless help. Rather, we must start with listening and really understanding what the other needs before helping. We should not become stuck in paralysis searching for perfect solutions. There is always some level of risk in helping but we must do our best.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.