You’re Not Better Than Me

Irving was eighty years old with soft, wrinkly skin, lanky arms, long, skinny legs, and the kind of hoarse, shaky voice of an elderly, frail man. He lived a few doors down with his mentally disabled adult grandson, Jonathan. As a three-year-old kid, I noticed Jonathan was different. He spoke oddly and moved strangely and I think he carried a baby doll with him, which I thought was unusual for a grown man. When I asked why he was so different, my mom said, “He’s not, he just needs some extra help.” My 25-year-old mother had befriended Irving and made an effort to frequently check on him to see that he and Jonathan were okay. One particular day, something terrible had happened. Some teenagers assaulted Jonathan, stole his belongings, and threw them in the woods behind his house. That day my mom and I had visited in time to find both Irving and Jonathan very upset. When my mom learned what happened, she instinctually walked straight back to the woods and immediately collected Jonathan’s items that were strewn about the tree branches and earth floor. I asked why the teenagers had done this and she told me, “Because they are mean, bad kids.” It was a moment when a distinct line separated good from evil. Jonathan and Irving were not bad people who deserved this treatment, they were vulnerable people who could not defend themselves. I felt sadness and…something that I couldn’t identify until I was older — I wanted to protect them.

Phoebe Buffay once said, “There’s no such thing as a selfless good deed.” A convincing point difficult to argue. After all, personal fulfillment was a selfish reason I enjoyed volunteering my time. When a volunteer opportunity existed, I assumed people wanted it, needed it, and were grateful others came to help. It was a pleasant exchange for everyone involved. In Philadelphia, I found an opportunity to help teen-aged moms and was looking forward to donating my time. However, I would come to realize that this experience had changed my perception of “help.”

Admittedly, I was ignorant and naive to assume everyone who needed help wanted it. Looking back, I don’t know if these teens were at this facility on their own volition or as part of some program trade-off but it didn’t matter, they were there. My job was to babysit their children for two hours while they learned basic life skills. The kind of skills their parents should have taught like balancing a checkbook and making a doctor’s appointment. I assumed the moms knew the hardships they faced as a young single parent and therefore, were interested in making the best of a challenging situation. Despite a rough life, their babies were precious! They were sweet and innocent, kind and loving and they liked playing and laughing with us; they were good kids! Surely, the mothers would be very interested in their child’s behavior with the babysitters. I anticipated displays of excitement, joy, and concern upon returning from class, especially since the moms didn’t know the volunteers. Instead, I was shocked and surprised at what I saw. They could not be less interested in their children or in acting like adults. They were combative, disrespectful 15-year-old girls who pushed passed me, as I shared their child’s positive review, to fist fight each other in the common space. Befuddled, I stood frozen, captivated by their behavior; was this a joke? The girls who didn’t participate in the fight ignored their children and went straight to the kitchen to prepare a microwaved dinner for themselves. The line between good and evil was very blurry. They were vulnerable but I couldn’t protect any of them, the babies or the mothers. My heart broke when I realized what was happening.

I was watching the “cycle” in action — babies raising babies. The children were too young to know anything different (as were the mothers) to become angry but their fates were forming. I’ve read plenty of studies and stories about inner city teen pregnancy but I felt amazing disbelief to witness it in person. I was helpless, anticipating their life’s future knowing how they were likely to end up. They’d grow up and find themselves in their own rotation of poverty, depravity, hopelessness, hardship, violence, and either pregnancy or prison. This was a force way too big and too strong for me to contribute any noticeable affect. I tried to save them by showing them how to be nice but it wasn’t enough. And I would be foolish to believe that volunteering every Wednesday from 6–8 pm would have any serious or lasting impact; I wouldn’t change their life’s course. I certainly wasn’t qualified or able to give any more than what I was already giving. I was thinking selfishly.

I ruminated over this situation for three months. Gradually, I had moved on from feeling helpless and started thinking of solutions. I tried thinking from their point of view. Just like the babies I looked after, these moms probably didn’t experience much different as small children. They behaved how they learned to behave from their own role models. And what was fundamentally abnormal about that? Who was I to say that their role models and everything they knew to be true was not only wrong but shameful? Just because they looked different didn’t mean they actually were different. I wanted to give them hope and aspirations for a better life, a life like mine, but who was I to say their lives weren’t good enough? What made my life better and what does “better” even mean, realistically? Certainly, my life could look relatively bad to someone more fortunate than me but that wouldn’t mean they were better than me.

If someone had imposed help upon me because they didn’t agree with my life, I think I’d have felt resentful and angry at their arrogance. I didn’t want to be like that; I couldn’t be responsible for imposing my opinion on these girls. I’m sure they tried hard and cared in their own way. Although, I may not have understood or agreed with their decisions, who was I to have an opinion about that? I wasn’t fundamentally better than them. I decided the most helpful and useful deed I could do was to be more kind and accepting. To respect them regardless of what I wanted or believed and be available if they needed me for help or guidance. On a larger scale, this is all I can do in society; be respectful and kind to everyone and be available to those who seek assistance or guidance. Moreover, I can advocate for the availability of resources for those who want them. Essentially, just be more selfless.