All of your life, people will ask you to do things for free. Of course, they won’t phrase it like that. They will say things like:
- it is your duty
- it is giving back to the community
- it is your service to God
- it is for the children
They are only too ready to define duty, community, and God for you, in ways that suit their goals. They rarely blush at making you feel guilty or selfish for having such normal and healthy priorities as taking care of your family and health and earning a living, responsibilities that take up most of most people’s time and will have far reaching effects if neglected.
This is not to say you should never help anyone for free, but it has to, by the very nature of life, be the exception rather than the rule. Few people are wealthy enough or are free enough from the rigors of daily life to devote much time or money without it being significantly detrimental to their ability to see to their own responsibilities and relationships. Those who “make their living” from the donations of others do not suffer the same consequences from lack of industry or reliability.
On the flip side, when people know they can get things “for free,” they learn to expect it. They may reward you with accolades of recognition, but the real reward in many cases is only theirs, as they get to suck the life out of you. When you have given all you can, they simply move on to the next victims, with their same winning smiles, sad stories, or authoritarian posturing.
It is a sad fact that if people find you will do one thing for them, they will usually try to get you to do more. More often than not, those who ask for such an offering of the substance of your life, have no real concern about squeezing all they can from you.
Unfortunately, our current culture idolizes volunteerism. There can be immense pressure to conform to this, to the point where some people call it being “voluntold.” The propaganda says any prosperity is a sign of greed, which surely must be repented of by volunteering. “Too much” time with family is labeled “anti-social,” as if the family wasn’t the most basic and most important social unit on the planet. If you are not spending the bulk of your free time “serving” various religious or governmental (often disguised as “community”) institutions, you must be a threat to “society,” that very nebulous creature that we are all supposedly just an organ of.
There are ways you can say no this nearly constant social pressure and combat the demands to give away your life for free:
1. Frame the issues in your own mind ahead of time. Have clear ideas of how much time or money you can or want to realistically donate. Recognize your priorities and limits.
2. Find at least a few reliable people who will support you with your priorities, both as you pursue your goals, and as you need to deal with those who would try to deplete you.
3. Remember that there have always been lots of problems and “needs” in the world, and there will be until the end of the world. There can be no sensible expectation that you take care of all of them.
4. Consider that by either wearing yourself and your resources out and/or by neglecting your responsibilities, you may actually be adding to the problems in the long run.
5. Be comforted that there are times and seasons of helping or not helping. If you choose to help more carefully, you will probably have a better chance of helping well.
6. Make it a habit to say no if someone is pressuring you. Buy applying such pressure, they are defining themselves as a used car salesman who wants to do his best to get your money by pushing you into an an often regrettable impulse decision.
7. Know that even if someone could honestly benefit from help, there are many people besides you. It is a rare thing that such a person will not have opportunity to get help elsewhere. The story of the Good Samaritan is more about not having an arrogant attitude toward helping those whom you obviously should help than it is about helping every last person you see.
8. Be in the habit of getting input from people you trust who are wiser or likely to be more objective in a given situation.
9. Evaluate carefully why you want to say “Yes.” Are you afraid of disapproval or not being liked? Is this person’s opinion worth much if it is based on them getting you to do want they want?
10. Admit that saying “No” can be humbling, as we concede that we are finite or will not be measuring up to someone’s expectations.
11. Face the fact that saying “Yes” can often deprive the person who wants help of facing a responsibility or learning experience.
12. Recognize that being a busybody about helping everyone could interfere with other people forming much more helpful relationships than you can offer if you are spread thinly or inappropriately.
13. Learn to be careful about letting others define what is helpful.
There may be times when you decide helping for free is the right thing, even if it is difficult or inconvenient. It is true that sometimes we must battle our own selfishness and laziness. However, the “self” is not inherently a bad thing and neither can it be escaped. If we don’t take care of “ourselves” or our responsibilities, someone else will probably have to be burdened with that. Learning to “love your neighbor as yourself” has the implication that “self” is being taken care of, because you cannot give from a dry well. If you do not take care of and have responsibility for “yourself” adequately, you will have nothing to give when it really is the right time for you to say “Yes” to helping someone else.