Learned unhelpfulness is the result of someone being taught that all they need to do to help their neighbor is to pay their taxes, or contribute some money to a group that is doing something. People will say, to use the words of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken's A Christmas Carol (see A nation of Scrooges? ),
“Are there no prisons? . . .And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge . .
.”Are they still in operation? . . .The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full
vigor, then?” . . . “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that
something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” . . .”I wish to be
left alone” . . . “since you asked me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer”
. . . “I help support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough:
and those who are badly off must go there.”
Those having the potential to help, instead look to the government because they pay taxes, or look to some organization because they give money. As a result then are unhelpful on a personal level.
In the end there is a confluence of learned helplessness and learned unhelpfulness. Those needing assistance may be totally frustrated with government and other beauracratic structures from whom they have been endeavoring to receive help resulting in their feeling helpless and wanting to give up, while those who could help have learned to lean on beauracratic structures to help those in need, thinking they need to do little or nothing other than that, resulting in their becoming unhelpful.
As Christians, we should know better than to rely on the government to help people in need. Sure we can support and/or advocate for government programs, however, we recognize that services are rendered when caring is needed. As Christians, we should also know better than to assume that all we need to do is to send a check to someone and we are then relieved of our responsibility towards others. Statistics indicate that the majority of Christians do not even tithe their financial resources, so that we are giving too little financially to charitable and church organizations, and expecting others to also do the grunt work of helping others, whether it is through governmental programs or relief organizations.
Its like the perfect storm of uncaring coupled with deep need. Perhaps the only way it could get worse would be for the government to cut programs as then the learned unhelpful would be relying on governmental programs that were not in existence, and the learned helpless would experience a further loss of motivation to attempt to fight for limited governmental resources.
To my mind, the answer is for me to get involved with my neighbor. I must tell you that that involvement is not often clean and easy either. I have a friend I am trying to encourage and support who looks to me for solutions and I have none. I sit with him and talk through the issues, I am his friend, I try to encourage him in the midst of the frustrations with the system, but I don't have the answers. What I do have for him is encouragement and friendship. He knows that when we get together for coffee, that he will be meeting with someone who cares about him, who listens to him and will try to help him if we can arrive at a course of action. Will I be able to help him to move forward, I hope so, but I make no promises. However, I also do not wash my hands of him in the assumption that the government or other agencies are taking care of him. I know better. I cannot do everything, but I can do something and what I can do I try to do and I think that is encouraging to him. It helps him to continue to battle the helplessness that the system is unconsciously trying to teach him. It also helps me through my friends encouragement to battle the unhelpfulness that the system is unconsciously trying to teach me.
Human service is always messy and not easy. The degree to which human service becomes regimented and easy is the degree to which it is excluding helpers, removing freedoms, and teaching helplessness. To paraphrase Dr. Julian Rappaport, when I use convergent thinking to solve human service problems I prove that I do not understand the problem.
So find those around you who are being devalued and encourage them. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself if you have bought the lie that helping is the government's or some agency's responsibility. Have you been programmed to be unhelpful?