the danger of the god-complex

[What I’ve learned from the book When Helping Hurts (Part 1 of ?)]

Blogs seem to require a certain amount of self-disclosure..  So here’s mine: I was fired from my first job.  Not laid off.  Not let go during a company-wide workforce reduction.  I was just fired.  Blame it on the immaturity of youth, the college lifestyle I was still living, or my irrationally powerful FOMO [1] that makes even the thought of falling asleep before anyone else unbearable because I might be missing out on something… Whatever the reason(s), I could NOT get myself to wake up and get to work on time.  (hm.. not much has changed, huh?..)

But in all seriousness, getting fired was an incredibly humbling experience.  I’d been told for years that I was smart, talented, capable…  how in the world did I get fired??  Talk about a blow to my ego.

I could be homeless…

No joke – one thought that kept plaguing me during that time was how easy it would be to become homeless.  If I hadn’t had such a supportive safety net of friends and family willing to help me out (and even periodically pay my credit card bills – thanks SO much, meimers!!), I don’t know what would have happened.  Would I have been willing to push pride aside and get a job that was “beneath” me and my education level in order to pay my bills?  Would I have been willing to forgo fun and friends to work whatever hours necessary to feed and house myself?  Sadly, I’m not sure I would have based on my immaturity and FOMO levels at the time :/

…but I had safety nets.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I never had to experience the consequences of my poor life decisions.  I had friends and family who were supportive, still thought I was smart and capable, and continued to encourage me despite my lapses in maturity/judgment/discipline/etc…

I’m pretty sure I’d be in a very different place now if not for those safety nets… 

It’s interesting how we end up in situations that have nothing to do with how inherently awesome (or not) we are.  I can’t take any credit for the fact that my parents studied hard, took a huge risk in moving to the US by themselves, and worked for years to make a good life for us…  And yet I’ve definitely benefited.

The problem is I DO take credit for it.  There’s at least a part of me that thinks I’m somehow “better” because I grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with well-educated, successful parents.  On its own, this thought may not be a bad thing.  No one really gets hurt if I think I’m awesome…  until I decide I want to help others.

Wait, what?…  Just hear me out.

If I think I’m better than the materially less fortunate, what happens when I want to help?  “How can I help you?”  On the surface, it’s an innocent – perhaps even loving – question.  Dig a little deeper, and you can sense a bit of a god-complex.  I live in a nice place, I’ve got it (mostly) together financially… so I’M in a position to help YOU.

If you’ve somehow been able to follow my line of thinking, you know it’s not necessarily true.

The person I want to help was born into a situation she had no control over.  She might be smart and capable, but maybe a temporary lapse in judgment without the safety nets I had has put her in a bad situation.  

If I only focus on her bad situation and how she needs help, I could totally miss out.  SHE might have some insights into something I’M going through.  There’s an even better chance that she has valuable insights into how to help her own community – after all, she lives there!

Let’s work together.

That’s why I love the recent movement towards collaboration in alleviating poverty. [2] Organizations are realizing the benefit of working WITH communities to determine the best strategies for empowerment and transformation.  Instead of coming in with ideas of how WE think things should be done, we’re coming alongside individuals to learn about their actual specific needs as well as what THEY have to offer. [3] Less “what can I do for you”, and more “how can we make this better TOGETHER”.

It’s about empowering, affirming, and working together.  Kind of like what my friends and family did for me back in the day 🙂

[1] fear of missing out

[3] Asset mapping/inventorying “uses individual or group-based interviews to catalogue the assets in a particular community… Once local assets are ‘mapped’… community residents and facilitators can identify strengths, make linkages between existing individuals and groups, and determine the best ways to leverage these assets to improve the community and solve problems.” (When Helping Hurts)



Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert talk about this more eloquently in Chapter 5 of their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.  Here are a few excerpts:

“starting with a focus on needs amounts to starting a relationship with low-income people by asking them, ‘What is wrong with you?  How can I fix you?’… Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.”

“’asset-based community development’… puts the emphasis on what materially poor people already have and asks them to consider from the outset, ‘What is right with you?  What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors?  How can the individuals and organizations in your community work together to improve your community?’… Indeed, the very nature of the question – What gifts do you have? – affirms people’s dignity”

“Of course, as the process proceeds, it may become clear that the individual or community does not have sufficient assets to address all of the needs.  If and when such needs become pressing, it is then appropriate to bring in outside resources to augment local assets… gauging the appropriate magnitude and timing… takes an enormous amount of wisdom.”

(more on what this could look like in future posts…)