The No Good Do-Gooder

I have long been confused by what doing “good” means. Is it giving food to someone who doesn’t have any? Is it donating your clothes to Goodwill? How about donating thousands of dollars to charity? Or flying to Africa to build wells? Aren’t all of these things good???????? From what I learned in college, the answer is Yes and No. That got me nowhere except to a greater state of confusion.

I was on the subway today, a smelly one. The stench was oozing from a teenage boy who was sleeping soundly in his seat. He had dirt on his clothes and it covered his face, neck and unwashed hair. He wore his raggedy old shoes on the wrong feet, and his sweatpants were covered with short white animal hairs. His face was red and eyes puffy as if he had cried, or was just exhausted. He had no belongings with him. At first I too was bothered by the smell like those around me with their fingers rammed up their nostrils. But then I noticed his boyish features and began to feel intense sadness for him.

Homeless people are everywhere, I know. But this boy sat right in front of me, sleeping, not noticing my rude, but heartfelt staring. I was carrying a bag of pastries and asked my dad if I should leave one for the boy. My dad said there was no need. But right before we got off the train, I left a pastry on the seat anyway. When I told my dad who hadn’t noticed, he said it wasn’t the right way to “do good.”

When I lived in NYC, I worked for a bakery that wasted a lot of food, like any food business. Sometimes I took whole cakes with me and left them on benches at Union Square or Washington Square Park where I knew a lot of homeless hung around. Sometimes I left things on the subway, hoping a hungry person would snag up the free goods. Then one day my friend made an excellent point that homeless people shouldn’t eat things like cake and cookies because it could cause long-term health problems that they can’t afford to cure. Instead, I should leave them apples and bread.

Well that got me in a bind. There I was with bags of free food and the worry that people are hungry, plus the awareness that cash isn’t always spent in the “right” places. So what was I to do with the food and my dilemma? Did I want to be the cause of someone’s diabetes, obesity and cavities? On the other hand, did I want to waste perfectly good dessert when there were starving children in Africa? 

On my way to the train, my dad and I passed a man selling a boxful of chicks. My initial reaction was ANIMAL CRUELTY! Then I thought, This farmer is just trying to make a living. And then, How cute would it be to have little yellow chickens running around my room? I could be their saviour.  My dad, being the more rational adult, pulled me away before I could whip out a few bucks that would ruin the lives of the little fur-balls forever. They might be suffering in the tiny living quarters, but they would also suffer from my neglect. These chickens are living beings, I can’t mess with that. Meanwhile, there’s the potentially hungry farmer I could’ve made a purchase from so he had some daily earnings (but he has all those chickens…) What is a gal to do in this situation? I did nothing except take this picture.

Compassion and generosity are qualities I’m proud to claim, but naive and impulsive tag along. I admit I tend to romanticize things. I’m happy I have a “good” heart and optimism, but my friends and family are right when they say I am naive. The world seem a lot simpler to me than it really is. This obstructs my ability to think holistically and do effectively, and instead leads me to act impulsively. It would be awesome if I could solve all the world’s problems. But I can’t. Nobody can. I’ve given up on that dream already, but I still believe one person can make a difference, and that making a difference to one person is still “good”.

But how? Was leaving a pastry for someone who might not even eat it or is too afraid to take it what I should’ve done to “help out” this kid? Is handing out dollar bills to homeless children who might work for abusive bosses going to benefit them or hurt them in the long-run? Here’s the question of the century: is it better to do something than nothing at all? These are the daily conundrums I have to deal with in my head. You should see what big ideas I’ve got stored upstairs. Anyway, that’s why I’ve decided to go to grad school. Maybe Professor Wong or Doctor Chan can tell me if I should’ve left a cupcake or an apple, or nothing at all.

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32 Comments on “The No Good Do-Gooder”

  1. Nice post. You know, someone telling you that you should only give homeless people healthy food is just ridiculous. Yeah, because homeless people are worried about long term anything. I give homeless people food all the time and most of the time they are thankful just to have something to eat.

  2. Emily He says:

    Thanks Big Sexy (Can I call you that too?). I agree with you, which is why I keep leaving food, unhealthy or not. However, sometimes people refuse it. For instance, I once offered leftover fish tacos to a homeless guy and his response was, “I don’t like fish.” I was stunned, but I’ve heard similar stories with other people. Can’t please everybody!

  3. These are indeed difficult questions to answer. But I’m a believer that yes, doing something is better than doing nothing. Your subway pastry, even if he didn’t eat it, sent him the message that somebody cared enough to do something. And sure, “caring” about the famines in Africa isn’t going to feed starving children, but it’s the first step, isn’t it?

    • Emily He says:

      You’re right about the pastry, Hannah. I hope he does realize that somebody cares, and doesn’t overlook the pastry as something somebody stupidly left behind. Unfortunately, the Chinese are known to often misconstrue good deeds as selfish motives or as plain old dumb. And yes, I agree with you there about “caring” as a first step. Simple math says if the ratio of “carers” is greater, the probability of a “carer” taking action is also greater. Hahaha, I’m terrible at math and logic. Hope that made sense!

  4. daterofboys says:

    Reading about you leaving cakes and pastries around warmed my heart. I think diabetes and cavities are the least of their worries…you done good, lady!

  5. Grace says:

    When I lived in Montreal, pretty much all I would buy would be fruit and veg, and maybe occasionally a bag of rice or box of pasta. I would offer things to homeless people on my way home if they asked (it took me a good year to do my first because speaking to strangers is maaad scary), and on multiple occasions I would get “that won’t sustain me”, like I was insulting them by giving them a couple of apples. There was also an elderly man I used to pass most mornings, and he always looked so cold, so I took him a coffee one day and got “where’s the extra cream”. You have to have a lot of self confidence to keep going out there and doing it and getting rejected, but the alternative is to feel guilty when you pass someone in need who is reaching out without at least saying hello. Or try to do more formal organized things to help the poor and homeless or other groups in need – I have met only one person who wasn’t grateful in this context and I really enjoy being able to chat with them for a few minutes before they go home, especially those who live alone. But I also get angry when people say that you can give poor people whatever and they will be grateful…they are humans still, with real preferences and feelings. What the world needs is not just more love, but sustained caring relationships. Show someone you care, and empower them to support themselves…get them out of the vicious poverty or gang or acting out cycle. There are obviously different solutions neccessary for other countries, contingent upon cultural ways and the availability of physical resources.

    • Emily He says:

      Grace, first of all, SO GLAD YOU COMMENTED!!!

      Second of all, I agree with you about the need to have confidence to persist through rejections, and yup, the thought of feeling guilty afterwards always nags at me which is why I do persist on giving away food, sometimes leftovers. But then I think, this guy doesn’t deserve leftovers. Why can’t I get him a hot meal? Of course I have yet to do that, but it’s on my mind.

      Thirdly, I too think it’s ridiculous that people believe the poor will accept whatever. That’s why I must coin in on the hot meal thing and not just hand out leftovers all the time, not that some might not be grateful for them…oy.

      You are so right when you say, “What the world needs is not just more love, but sustained caring relationships. Show someone you care, and empower them to support themselves…get them out of the vicious poverty or gang or acting out cycle.” I hold this belief, but I struggle to carry it out. My mom told me just this evening in response to my idea of getting chickens, that my heart is in the right place, but I lack the ability to go through with it.

      I’m taking you up on that piece of advice, to join an organized group to help the poor. Thanks for your brilliant comment, Grace. I hope they keep comin’! And perhaps you should start a blog, too? I WOULD TOTALLY READ IT!

      • Grace says:

        I know one of my issues commitment phobia and the arrogant belief that if I reach out now, s/he will expect me to always reach out, which I may not want. I forget that actually that person could be a really good friend. But I’ve had three too many stalkers in my life. Again, another excuse, but also another reason for structured interactions. Apart from when I get lines like “sorry, I’ve made you stay longer than your allocated hours”. I don’t want to make people feel like my empathy for them or willingness to help is on the clock. You defs brought up a good topic here Li’l EHe.

      • Emily He says:

        See how difficult this helping thing is?? No wonder our world is as fu$%^ed up as it is… sigh. I’ve been sighing a lot recently. So much to sigh about…

  6. i’ve struggled with this too. and then i watched a TED video of Fabio Barbosa, president of Santander Brasil. (i would post link but it’s in Portuguese! not very helpful…) anyway, his overarching message was essentially “be the change and the good you want to see in the world.” to me that means be compassionate and do what you know in your heart is right. like someone already mentioned, even if that boy didn’t eat the pastry you so kindly left him with the best of intentions the fact that someone cared enough to leave it may have given him a new sense of hope…sometimes the smallest things can have a huge impact and snowball into something bigger. i say listen to your heart and do good. :o)

    • Emily He says:

      Thank you so much for the encouragement! I’m definitely going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, leaving a trail of food all over the world. Haha, but no seriously, I will continue to listen to my heart and stay optimistic, as cliche as that sounds. Thanks again for leaving this nice comment 🙂

  7. michaeljones909 says:

    Hi Emily…I’ve gotta agree with the big guy at the top,i can’t believe your friend said that,it must have been kinda comical to hear…
    I definitely wouldn’t recommend handing out money to people,you would end up being taken advantage off for sure.
    If you really wanted to help maybe you could join a small group that helps,i know here we have groups that hand out quilts in the winter hot drinks and food that kinda thing.It may not sound much but actually it’s a small thing to do that saves lives.
    You’ve got great qualities,But common sense should always rule the day…I never new they had fish in taco’s! I had to google it to make sure haha,they sound awful haha! 🙂

    • Emily He says:

      You are absolutely right about everything you said!! No, money is not the answer to a lot of problems (I mean it is, but not as a handout). I’ve been applying to some volunteer positions but I’ve yet to hear back from any. I also agree with you about common sense being most important. My parents tell me that ALL the time. I’m trying to grow out of my naivete, but that will naturally happen as I learn more about how people work.

      Thanks for your comment Michael 🙂 Where ARE you from by the way? Obviously from a place with very kind folks! And yes, fish tacos are quite popular these days (in America, not China. No tacos here!), and surprisingly they’re good!

  8. great post, Emily. AS ALWAYS. 🙂

  9. Cafe23 says:

    This is really beautiful. I really love this post.

    I usually hear from people that they don’t want to give money to homeless people because they think they will just go use it for drugs or alcohol. That always seemed to be the issue I would hear around giving to the homeless. I used to work for a non-profit organization that, among other things, help people who are homeless and/or addicted to drugs. I think from my experiences there, I came to the conclusion that I was okay with giving change to homeless people and I couldn’t judge what they might do with it.

    Regarding food, I think that if what you have to give them happens to be pastries, then maybe it is better than nothing. If you, in an ideal world, had a choice of what kind of food to give them, then I would tend to agree with your friend because homeless people definitely do have very high rates of health problems and experience a lot of difficulty accessing the health care system if they have problems, whether it’s because they don’t have a health card or because of discrimination against them by health care providers, etc.

    All of that aside, you have such a good heart and I definitely wouldn’t discourage you from continuing to be the caring, generous person that you are 🙂

    • Emily He says:

      Thank you so much for this awesome and sweet comment!!

      But you’ve brought up another problem for me, can I judge the homeless for what they might do with my change? No, but I guess giving them food is a safer option in general? I’ve been told numerous times that many beggars in China are not actually poor, but begging is a get-rich-fast-scheme so they put on the act. Just like charity organizations, even the Red Cross, the general public can’t trust a “good cause” anymore because they’ve been fooled so many times. But if I choose to turn a blind eye, I might miss the chance of actually helping a person who is really in need.

      You make a good point about food, choice and the ideal world. unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world, so I guess from your comment, and everyone else’s, I’m gonna keep on giving what I can. Thanks again so much for this nice response to my post 🙂

      • Cafe23 says:

        Heya, you’re very welcome 🙂

        Yes, I totally understand what you mean by food being a “safer option.” Part of it may be what they need but it’s also what you’re comfortable with giving. You shouldn’t have to give out of wanting to do an act of kindness but then stress about it later! If you’ve thought it over in your mind about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how you think it will benefit the person, then I say let your mind be at ease and just feel good about it. If you are unsure or skeptical about something, I guess that’s when you have to think a little bit more about it or do some research. But it sounds like you know what you’re okay with and that’s the most important thing 🙂

  10. Currie Rose says:

    Hello there,
    I read your post and I have to say that it touched me deeply. I can really relate to every aspect of this story. A few years ago, I was living in Korea and in the heat of the summer, a man sat in the blistering sun with about 15 puppies and kittens in a small cage trying to sell them. The animals were in very bad shape…. dehydrated and VERY sickly. I began to cry, telling my ex-husband that we had to buy them all and save them. We did look into it, but the man was selling them for about 100 dollars a pop. My ex-husband tried to console me and tell me that based on what they looked like, they would be dead soon and really that was probably better for them. I was torn up over not being able to do anything to help the little babies for months.

    Throughout the years, through my own plight and becoming more aware of the plight of the world, I have become a compulsive do-gooder. I am proud of this, to be honest with you. I do not use it as a sheild to avoid my own problems nor do I try to play god with those who are in pain. However, I have learned that though I cannot change the world in one swoop based on random acts of kindness, I can step by step empower people by showing them that I love them, that they are not forgotten about and by inspiring onlookers to step outside of their comfort zone to do something kind for someone. I have learned that when I give sugary treats to homeless people, I can also give them a toothbrush and toothpaste.

    To me, kind deeds come from the heart, they are not something that can be rationalized by the mind and there is nothing wrong with showing someone that you do see them, to interact with them from a place of love and to be present with them, just as they are.

    Shortly after I saw those dying animals in Korea, I got an opportunity to adopt an abused cat. I jumped on the chance and realized that though I could not help all those babies that one day, that I was given the opportunity to greatly improve the quality of life for one kitty… and boy did we have fun with him. Though I no longer have him, I do know he now lives in Austin Texas, playing with his best kitty friend across the courtyard. When I got him, he had never been outside nor had he even seen the outdoors. He lived with several men who HATED him and had no problem showing him that. We had the chance to teach him how to play outside and to show him love. He now lives a very free life. I guess the gift that those dying animals provided to me that day is to show me how great a desire I had to love animals… and to stand up for something that had no voice. Had I not had that experience that day, I don’t know that I would have adopted Dizzle a few weeks later and I don’t know if I would have been able to recognize the gift I had to make the world a little better for at least one animal.

    I guess what I am getting at here is this (and I am speaking only from my experience): Don’t rationalize or underestimate the power you have to change the life of someone with any one random act of love. Don’t judge the things you see as “bad” or “hopeless.” I have seen that the best way for me to interact with the world is to understand I know nothing. I have never walked in the shoes of another and I cannot know how “good deeds” are affecting others or planting seeds for them to grow… or for others to do good for others too.

    Congrats on grad school! I’m sure you will learn a lot… but always remember that you have everything you need to know already very alive inside of you… Though I’m sure your professors will have wonderful things to teach you, remember that you already know your truth…. and a formula cannot be placed on how to do “good” deeds.

    Have a lovely day,
    Currie

    • Emily He says:

      Currie, thank you. Thank you for heartfelt response to my questions, and thank you for setting an example that I needed. I’ve admired you from afar since I read that interview of you on the “6 Months To Live” blog.

      I’m having trouble responding to your comment because I’m trying to come up with the best response ever, but really, all I want to say is “Thank You” from the bottom of my heart for saying all the things I needed to hear most and for reassuring me that there are people out there like you making the world at least a little better for even just one person. It’s easy to lose faith and follow the crowd, and I’m pretty sure I was about to get sucked into the belief that good deeds go unrecognized and even denounced by the majority (at least here in China). But now my faith is reaffirmed by everyone’s comments that a random act of kindness can make a difference, if even for a moment.

      This line here that you said especially resonates with me: “To me, kind deeds come from the heart, they are not something that can be rationalized by the mind and there is nothing wrong with showing someone that you do see them, to interact with them from a place of love and to be present with them, just as they are.”

      “…to be present with them, just as they are.” Sometimes that’s the most important thing someone needs, isn’t it…to be seen and recognized as another human being (or cat, like Dizzle!) who needs love and care just like the next person (cat).

      Sometimes I look around here in Beijing and think “how can people be so heartless?” (Like the Yue Yue incident…I wrote a post about her earlier) There’s a long history that feeds into the vicious cycle of fear, distrust, indifference and hatred that people are caught in these days. I hope one day that will change, but in the meanwhile, I will continue to follow my heart and hopefully inspire a few folks to do the same along the way.

      Your comment really meant a lot to me. Thanks for making a difference in my life, and the lives of others I will come across (as the Butterfly Effect indicates).

      Emily

  11. Pigeon Heart says:

    This is a conundrum. I think doing acts of kindness and showing you care has a much higher value both in the moment and in the grand scheme of things than we might ever know. Regardless, it is tricky because I no longer believe in the existence of black and white. Welcome to the struggle. (;

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks to all of your and others’ awesome replies to my post, I now totally believe that yes, simple acts of kindness are valuable no matter what, and there is no wrong or right in it. Oof, The Struggle that we call Life!

  12. annaamazhang says:

    Ah they are so adorable! 😀

  13. Great post, Emily. I often wondered the same thing, walking the streets of DC. I smiled, gave them eye contact and said hello when they were responsive; some beamed back. I also donated money to a local organization. I have seen people giving them coffees or food; some asking the person in advance what s/he wanted to eat or drink. If you give them money, yes, they may spend it on booze — esp. if they get meals from local charities — but I have seen plenty of them using the money for food, counting every dime. We are who we are, we contribute however we can and there is no right or wrong, I think. If you want to do more, I know you will find a way 🙂

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks, Janique! After reading everybody’s comments, I’m confident that I’ve been doing the “right” thing all along. I guess I just needed some reassurance when the rest of the world wasn’t showing me any. See why I love wordpress?

  14. There was a time when I was starving, I was living in an apartment with no electricity, no food no nothing. If someone had given me anything to eat whether it was healthy or not i would have been eternally grateful. Many people who are starving and homeless do not have the luxury to eat regularly.

    It’s very tricky to help people. Some people do not want to be helped, and other’s are not in a capacity to benefit from help, like for instance a homeless man who suffers from terrible schizoprenia. 1/3 of all the homeless in the US suffer from mental disease. Though you give him food it doesn’t reach the root of the problem.

    I think each of us has a unique skill set and if want to helps we have to find a way to incorporate our own skill and unique way of seeing the world into the methods we choose to create to help other. I have done some cool things which succeeded a bit before they horrible failed but I am convinced that creativity and working from within a unique vision is the basis. have you ever heard of Pierre Rabhi and read about his work.

    Also I had some trouble for a while in that I would agonize over what was the right thing to do in a situation to the point of paralysis like some Prince Hamlet figure. I found ultimately that there wasn’t a good or bad when I got down to it, as much as there was what moved me internally and what didnt and kept me awake at night.

    • Emily He says:

      What you said here is exactly the reason I am applying to grad school. I know I’m doing the right thing in following my heart and leaving a trail of crumbs behind me for those who might need it in the moment, but I have bigger dreams of helping people as well. I’m applying to grad school (and I wrote all of this in my personal statement last night..hehehe) in hopes of getting the right tools to impact a larger group of people more effectively and most importantly, sustainably. I want to make sure I DO put my personal skill sets to use, but I need to make sure they’re fully formed and to their greatest potential before I begin to make big changes. From the encouragement of all of you guys, I’m going to continue to make all the small differences I’ve been making so far, but in the meantime, I’m also going to work on improving myself before I can make bigger changes for with others. I haven’t heard of Pierre Rabhi but I’m going to look into him with your suggestion. I’m sure I’ll lots, as I always do from you!

      I hope you’re not starving anymore, Big D! If you are, I’ll send you Chinese food in the mail!!!

      -Lil Homey

  15. lostnchina says:

    You know, I’d be interested in reading a blog from your Dad’s point of view! Leaving cakes and wanting to buy baby chicks! 🙂

    • Emily He says:

      Hahaha my dad is a funny man. His blog would be hilarious! Too bad it would take a million years to write each post because his computer skills are limited…and it would be in Chinese.


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