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To Help Or Not To Help

Have you ever been really busy, and then someone comes to talk to you about their troubles, and you're sitting there listening while thinking, "When is this going to be over? I don't have the time for this!" It can be a tough situation. On the one hand, we don't want to be cold and heartless. On the other hand, we got important stuff to do too!

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Recently, a classmate of mine was talking about how when he was studying for a big test, his friends would come and talk to him about their relationship troubles. He would give them some advice, but it seemed like these people just wanted to rant, and they didn't listen to his advice. Moreover, as he listened more and more to them rant, he started to feel bad from all their negative energy. Hence, he decided to stay away from them and used his exam as an excuse.

When I heard this, I thought it was reasonable. After all, we need to fulfill our responsibilities before helping others. But when my teacher heard this, he gave some wiser advice.


If someone truly needs our help, but we ignore their call for help because we are too "busy", then we will have a guilty conscience. What if they commit suicide because we were their last hope, but we ignored them? So we need to first understand the seriousness of their situation. If they are feeling really low, then we should try to help. If it's a trivial matter, then we can politely decline.

Assuming it is a serious matter, and they really want our time, then we have to consider our ability. If we only have 30 minutes, then we can tell them, "I really do care about you, but I also have some pressing matters right now, so I can only discuss for 30 minutes. But I promise you have my full attention for these 30 minutes."

Moreover, we could recommend them to someone with better abilities. For example, we could say, "After listening to your situation, I think our mutual friend Sarah would be a good person to talk to about this issue. Let me ask her if she's free." It's important that we personally connect them to the third person rather than asking them to contact the third person, otherwise we are being irresponsible, and the other person will feel like we are trying to brush them off.

Next is their willingness to listen to our advice, which would be reflected in their reaction to our advice and whether or not they act on it. If they just want to rant and are not interested in solving the problem, then we can limit our time with them. Sometimes, people seem to react positively to our advice, but then they don't follow through, and then later they come back to rant about the same problems. In this situation, we can set conditions for the next chat.

For example, we can say, "Please try my advice before our next chat, and then we can talk about how it went." We could also ask them to watch an advice video or read an advice article before chatting, and then discuss that advice during the chat. These are all ways to reduce the amount of discussion time while also increasing the effectiveness of the time spent.


My Reflection

I'm reminded of this quote by Confucius:

"Superior people follow the Middle Way, so they always do things to just the right degree. Common people violate the Middle Way, so they act without restraint."

(Original Text: 君子之中庸也,君子而時中;小人之中庸也,小人而無忌憚也。)

Oftentimes, people think in extremes. It's either I help them or I don't help them. But a better question would be, "To what degree do I help them? How do I help them to that appropriate degree?" The answer depends on many factors, such as

  • How much do they really need you?

  • How much ability do you have?

  • How willing are they to listen to your advice?

There have been times in the past where I overburdened myself trying to help others. That's probably why I was of the opinion that we need to protect our own time first and help others only when we have spare time. I went from one extreme (helping others at the cost of myself) to another extreme (unwilling to endure inconvenience for others). What I need to do is find the Middle Way, and that requires wisdom.

For many people, it's easy to be compassionate at the beginning, but because we lack wisdom, the result turns out bad, and then we lose our heart of compassion, which is really a big shame. If humans only care about themselves and don't care about others, then what makes humans better than animals? Thus, it's so important that we cultivate both compassion and wisdom.


In situations where we are busy but others ask us for help, we don't need to offer them all our time, nor should we flat out reject them. We ought to consider the severity of their situation, and we can make more effective use of our time by setting time limits, requesting them to read certain advice beforehand, or referring them to someone with better ability. Of course, these tactics all need to be implemented in a polite manner and with a sincere attitude. We do not want the other person to feel like we are brushing them off or that they are being a burden to us.

Not helping others when they ask for help is inhumane, but overburdening ourselves or wasting time is unwise. Compassion needs to be balanced with wisdom.


Weekly Wisdom #240


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