When It’s OK Not to Help Someone

Asher Black
6 min readOct 28, 2023

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Image: Jeffrey Czum

“I just want to help people.” You hear it all the time, and it sounds inauthentic. As though there were generic people and all help is somehow the same. But the devil is in the distinctions, and helping when help is not earned throws shit at the genuine article.

Ayn Rand termed it a culture of philanthropy — the insistence that help is given regardless of any other values we may have because helping without qualification is the sine qua non of a good person. I share the attitude that help is not itself a value, and helping someone when help is at variance with my values is inauthentic.

What I listen for is the litany of disempowerment (below). A physician (by definition, someone who offers help) has diagnostic criteria for identifying a patient’s condition or determining the root cause of an illness. Medicine is inexact. If more than some number of items on a diagnostic criteria are true, they don’t all have to be true. We still have a best guess as to what we’re dealing with until we get more data that either confirms an evaluation or disputes it.

The Litany of Disempowerment

  • What should I do?
  • I don’t know what to do.
  • Am I doing it right?
  • How do I know if I’m doing it right?
  • Why do different people have different advice?
  • How can I tell who to listen to?
  • What are people thinking about me?
  • What do I do about people who think I’m wrong?
  • Why are people so mean to me?
  • I know what I want, but it feels like I’ll never get there.
  • I really don’t know what I want.
  • I know what I want, but am afraid I shouldn’t want it.
  • I know what I want, but it would mean changes I can’t make.
  • I know I can do it, but it’s scary.
  • I would change, but it’s hard.
  • I’m not helpless. I just don’t have anyone helping me.
  • I really want someone to do it for me.
  • I guess I’ll just keep trying.
  • How do I get people to take me seriously?

By disempowerment, I mean the position of giving up one’s power to forces beyond one’s own control—the world, other people, impersonal forces, a system, etc. I don’t mean those things have no power. I mean if our posture is one of assigning our fate to forces beyond ourselves, we have conceded our power. It is, by definition, disempowerment.

One of the tools I got from Landmark Education is the option to consciously assign responsibility for everything in my life to myself. Even if someone did something to me or it happened to me, I am responsible for it. The only alternative is to concede my power to someone or something else and, whether that’s a bully, abuser, or cancer, I will not give them my power. This tool has been a decisive instrument in my life because, with it, I am the decisive power in that life.

Definition of a victim narrative: If we position external forces as decisive in our destiny, we have already conceded our future to other people and situated it beyond our control.

I choose not to help people with a narrative of disempowerment, because it’s at variance with my values to “buy a drunk a drink” (Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis). Meaning I don’t wish to feed the misery of the world by substantiating the basis for the misery. I wish to deprive that basis of substance, not bolster its strength. Someone recites the litany, short form or long—”I’m stuck, and it sucks.”—and I say, “Yeah, it must indeed suck to be in that place.” I may critique that mindset, that way of seeing/thinking, because it strengthens my own view of the world, but I don’t help.

The ethics of giving a drunk a drink: If we want seismic changes to our lives, but we’re protecting our existing life template, we will not succeed, and no one should tell us we will or help us pretend.

The pretense that we will succeed with a victim narrative, a litany of learned helplessness, is underscored by the pretense in the narrative itself. It’s an inauthenticity that comes off of the narrator like a profound aroma. What’s profound about that phenomenon is that a victim narrative is self-bolstering, because people sensing that inauthenticity will not help.

Why victims drown without help: The inauthenticity of feigning helplessness will be obvious and palpable to anyone who has personally rejected a victim narrative for their own life. It is inauthentic because it’s at variance with reality. And anyone in touch with reality will notice it.

Feigned Powerlessness: I have never forgotten these words I read more than thirty years ago by Armenian Christian poet and thinker Kahlil Gibran, though I have only understood them for the past decade.

“It is an abomination to pretend to be lame when your limbs are whole, to hobble on crutches when you can run. It is a sin to feign weakness when you are strong, to lie in the shade when the sun is shining upon you. Be not like the cripple who begs for alms, though he has hidden treasures in his home. Be not like the beggar who asks for bread, though he has fields of wheat.” — from Sand and Foam

Of course, there are other reasons not to help someone. I made a list, and I apply this to my professional as well as personal life.

When Not to Help Someone

  • When they have a complaint but refuse to ask for help because then, if it fails, it’s on you.
  • When you offer, and it’s refused.
  • When you have to accept a narrative that the world is to blame in order to help.
  • When there is more interest in dwelling on the problem than solving it.
  • When any solution leads to another problem because the problem is cover for explaining one’s inaction.
  • When they’ve already given up.
  • When it’s assumed you have all the answers and you’re blamed if you don’t.
  • When there’s a fixed view of the problem in a form that is unsolvable.
  • When there’s a fixed choice of solutions because then there’s nothing to solve-just someone to blame when it doesn’t work.
  • When they won’t commit any resources but won’t admit they just want you to do it for them.
  • When the definition of the problem keeps changing because they haven’t actually identified the problem.
  • When they want a risk-free answer because those don’t exist.
  • When they have things configured to reject any workable solution.

It’s no accident that these things, some or all (again, it’s a diagnostic criteria) tend to be present alongside a narrative of disempowerment. This is disempowerment implemented. It’s what disempowerment looks like programmatically, on the ground. We could say disempowerment ‘in action’ except it’s really inaction. It’s failure by design, and the design is the template of our thoughts.

If we choose to help someone adrift in disempowerment without addressing that fundamental template as causative and pivotal in their lives, then we also are out of touch with reality, in principle if not in thinking. For me, that’s why I won’t do it. It feels vaguely unethical, but also I’d be ungenuine doing it, because it’s at variance with my fundamental values. Consequently, I might seem harsh by critiquing the root without extending a hand beyond that, but I am waiting until I see the disempowerment weakened before I invest in a sinking ship.

I titled this “When it’s OK not to help someone” in order to keep the title brief, promiscuous, and digestible, but it’s not really what I think. What I really think is that it’s “right” not to help someone until there’s a solid predictor of their success based on their internal narrative as reflected in the words they use and the way they construe problems and solutions and their relationship to other people and the world. Until I think I can put out the fire, I’m not draining the town’s water tower. I’m spending water where I don’t have the owner spraying gasoline.

It bears saying there are no ‘disempowered people’ (in a fixed way)—only people who are currently disempowered (by their template). There are certainly disempowered groups of people (people in the aggregate). You see it in the Qanon/MAGA/conspiracy posture. Those are movements of disempowerment. On an individual level, however, people can change their template. If we assume otherwise, we are disempowered about empowerment, and that would be an ironic shame.

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Asher Black

Asher Black is a storyteller, musician, & karateka satisfied w. the life he always wanted. Profile not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect. Etc