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People will never forget how you made them feel

May 3, 2011

How Matters posts a story that appeared recently in a magazine. I have reposted it below, because I believe we can learn a lot from it.

*****

IN FIFTH GRADE I WORE HIGH-TOP brogans [a heavy laced usually ankle-high work boot] to a two-room schoolhouse in the foothills of the High Sierra [California, U.S.A.]. My father worked on a dam-construction project and was gone during the week. As the eldest boy, I got up at 5 AM and milked the cow before school.

The brogans were my only shoes, and I didn’t always clean them well enough after the morning chores. When some of the other students complained about the odor of manure on them, my mother decided to purchase a pair of rubber boots that I would wear for my barnyard chores. Meanwhile the brogans were just about worn out, and there was not enough money for rubber boots and school shoes. In the spring I began to go to school barefoot.

One a day a local married couple came to visit us on our farm and said they had heard I was going to school without shoes. They wanted to take me to church in the city, twenty miles away, and get me a pair of shoes. I submitted only after my older, sister, who was eleven, agreed to come along.

When the couple arrived on Sunday morning, I was disappointed that they hadn’t brought the shoes with them. They said I would get them when we got to church.

After we arrived at the church, I asked again about the shoes, because I thought it was a law that you had to wear shoes to church—especially a big, fancy one like this. The little church in our town was sparsely furnished with benches and a simple cross on the wall. The city church was decorated with huge curtains, stained glass, and gold statues. But the couple brought me inside barefoot.

After a half-hour of preaching and singing, the church had a sharing session, and the couple brought us before the congregation. The husband told everyone that I had been going to school barefoot and suggested taking up a collection for me. He pushed me out into the aisle, where I stood, shoeless, feeling ashamed, and fighting hard not to cry.

On the ride home I hid my face, and my sister put her hand on my head and just left it there the whole way back.

The couple returned to the farm only once. When I saw their car coming up the road next to the orange grove, I ran to the river and hid out until they had left. Later I went into the house, and in the middle of the kitchen table was a cheap pair of canvas sneakers, two sizes too large.

Gary Adams, Santa Barbara, California

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

*****

I have so many thoughts about this story.

My first thought when I read that the couple went to his house because they had heard that he was going to school barefoot was “wow, that is cool, they are wanting to meet a need.” However, my joy was short-lived. In order to get their “help” the kid was going to have to go with them to church far away from where he lived. Christians do this all the time. We love to add conditions and restrictions to our help. Most times this is either that the person has to go to church with us or that they have to sit through a presentation of the gospel before than can receive anything. How many times did Jesus withhold help or healing until he had led the person through the Roman Road (yes, yes, I know Romans didn’t exist at this time, but you get my point)? We have things backwards. We feel that we have the right to share the gospel (or take the person to church) if we are going to give them something. But that thinking is wrong. We must first earn the right to share and that only comes from meeting a need, helping, listening, or building a relationship with someone (and we can’t do these things with the only intention of sharing either). Just ask yourself if you would want someone to befriend you with the only intention of sharing their faith with you and if you decide not to believe what they say, then they stop being your friend. Or what if your house was flooded and people came by to see if you needed help, but before they would help you they wanted to take you to their church.

Then they take the kid to church…without shoes. Even the child realizes that this is not one of those churches where you can just show up without shoes on and go unnoticed. Obviously the couple had to know this and yet they still did it. Did they not think that they were completely embarrassing this child? Did they not take his emotions and feelings into consideration at all? I doubt it. This is what happens when you are more concerned with yourself and how others view you than you are of actually helping people.

And it doesn’t end there. Apparently this couple had no intentions of buying this child a pair of shoes. They brought the child to church in order to take him down front, get people to feel sorry for the kid without shoes (because again, that makes the kid feel real good), and get others to give money to help buy him shoes. Maybe I am wrong, but that is what it looks like.

The quote at the end is perfect, “people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is why good intentions are not good enough.

Wanting to help people for the wrong reasons does more harm than good.

Wanting to help people but not thinking through the implications of what you are going to do does more harm than good.

Creating a situation where you make the recipient feel embarrassed or ashamed is terrible.

Before we try to “help” people, we need to ask the question, if someone did this to me, how would I feel?

Remember, just because someone is in need, it does not mean that you have the right treat them however you want because you are going to “help” them. And just because they are in need, it does not mean that they don’t have want to be treated with respect and dignity. People are already hurting, they don’t need you to add to it.

Are you asking the right questions?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn Cantwell permalink
    May 3, 2011 10:05 pm

    I cringed when I read your piece…

    A good book which addresses this problem is “When Helping Hurts” by Fikkert (I can’t recall the name of the other author). It examines the wrong motives and hidden agendas people have for helping, among many other issues related to relief, development, and restoration.

  2. May 3, 2011 10:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing the story on your blog as well. It, along with your comments, demonstrates how well-intentioned people can dehumanize those they are trying to serve, as well as render their help ineffective and untimely. Are we asking the right questions indeed?

    • May 25, 2011 5:44 pm

      Thank you for posting the original story on your site. I have enjoyed reading your blog and the topics you discuss

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