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Sometimes I think what keeps us from establishing a personal connection with a needy individual is our fear that we won't be able to maintain clear boundaries. Maybe we'll get close enough to this individual to find out that his or her needs are so dire we'll feel guilty for not taking the person home and providing what my Brooklyn friend calls "three squares and a flop" for a time that might feel like (or even be) forever. Remember Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"? Saul Bellow's The Victim? Oh, dear, Mary Gordon's Final Payments!

No wonder many of us limit our charitable giving to financial donations. Those of us who in addition can (or who instead do) carve out some hours of personal time to give, probably confine our efforts within the walls of agencies that have well-structured tasks for volunteers to complete. After the board meeting, after the marathon of envelope-addressing, after a certain number of hours in the phone bank, we know we can go home to our usual lives, leaving behind us the needs of the organization and the people it serves.  

Freestyle volunteering of the kind I'm promoting is comparatively uncharted territory.

Say you make a connection with a person who's isolated because of chronic mental illness or stuck in the social ghetto of "the homeless," and you set up a weekly meeting with that person at a cafe'. How do you draw a bright line between what you're willing and able, vs. downright unwilling and unable, to do for him or her? Goodness, what if their relatives or friends descend upon you, too, full of expectation?

I keep firmly in mind that my commitment is ONLY to one hour each week, during which I will faithfully buy coffee for, and have a conversation with, one person. If my coffee companion asks for something I can't or don't want to give, I smile and say no. If one day I happen accidentally to cross the boundary line and give more than I want to continue giving in the future, I pull back the next time. In other words, I "just say no." Kindly. Saying No is as beneficial for the giver's character as is saying Yes.

One day I hadn't eaten lunch before my usual meeting with Nancy. When I bought coffee for the two of us, I added a salad for myself to the purchase and asked her if she wanted to join me. She likes food prepared by hands other than her lonely own and happily chose the cold Asian noodles. We enjoyed our lunch together.

The following week, Nancy shyly asked for a salad along with her coffee, and I realized, uh-oh, I'd unwittingly set a precedent. I bought her the dish, but the following week when I hopped on my bike to go meet her as usual, I left my purse behind in the house with all my credit cards and all my cash except for $4 tucked in my pocket. When she ventured to ask for a salad, I told her I had only $4 with me. Only twice more did she ask for food and did I have to regretfully refuse. Now we're back in the old "two cups of coffee" drill.

Well, if I'm feeling flush, sometimes I throw in a bagel.

Please see the entire diary series on this and related topics. And if you'd rather email me than post a comment here at Kos, write to

Originally posted to Reretiree on Thu Dec 18, 2008 at 09:15 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm Beginning to Think that... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Halcyon, lotlizard, SciVo

    "boundries" are the greatest challenge we face as humans -- and the source of much suffering and sadness.

    The problems we face today cannot be solved by the minds that created them.

    by Pluto on Thu Dec 18, 2008 at 09:45:20 PM PST

    •  Boundaries. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lotlizard, Pluto

      I don't think those who think they are 'our betters' have any problem with boundaries at all. They just take whatever they want. Their only challenge is creating pretext.
      Thanks again for another lesson Reretiree. Your insight about your son imputing control and spying to the gift computer makes perfect sense. I wonder, if he were to purchase his own computer, by himself, if he'd come to feel paranoid about it too?

      •  He has, actually, (7+ / 0-)

        thrown away his cellphone, even ones he himself bought - they're potentially secret doorways into his life. People with schizophrenia often have the delusion that the TV or radio is spying on them or speaking to them personally, sometimes in code.

        What my son continues to teach me is that there is nothing rational or reasonable or logical I can do to help him. All I can do is love him. In a way, that's the human condition: "We must love one another or die." as W. H. Auden said in one of his poems. The only way I can keep my connection with my son alive by loving him, without any hope of his ever loving me back, or of his loving anyone else, for that matter. What a mystery.

    •  Sometimes Difficult But (0+ / 0-)

      I still sometimes find it hard to simply say no, even when someone is clearly stepping over boundaries.

      But I've learned to say it, and realize it's far better than the open-ended resentment that used to result from my unwillingness to accept immediate discomfort.

      Although when I've been caught by surprise by an unreasonable request I can slip back into trying to find a "reasonable" excuse, I usually act like an adult.

      And I know I'm more generous as a result.

      Surprise, we live in a Left-Of-Center Nation! Act accordingly.

      by VA Gal on Sat Dec 20, 2008 at 08:08:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Is this snark? No, really, is this fucking snark? (0+ / 0-)

    . . .racism? check.
    Stereotypes of Asians? Check.
    Stereotypes of the mentally ill? Check.
    "Look at me, I'm so charitable for deigning to help this other?" Oh hell yeah.

    Fuck you and the high horse you rode in on. You are the embodiment of elitism, "liberal guilt," and judgmental, effectively worthless "contact" and "help" that makes YOU feel better but does NOTHING for either the problem in general or the person involved.

    Reading this makes me want to give Hiro a big hug, all the money I could give, and sit down and actually talk to him for a while. Maybe he's not "crazy" as much as he is pissed off at a world that would write him off as you have.

    Deyama Toshimitsu! You broke my gaydar! I demand a replacement at once!

    by MiscastDice on Fri Dec 19, 2008 at 10:46:19 PM PST

    •  So, how much time *have* you spent with hiro? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cameoanne, AJ in Camden

      Yeah, that's what I thought.

      I've found that just an hour with someone who cares about and listens to me can be very helpful. Perhaps it's the same for hiro, and reretiree. People willing to do so are hard to find, though.

      Why crash on somebody who is trying to help. Shesh. Try to express your inner conflicts and you get jumped on. So what if the diarist isn't perfect? What part of life is? How often are anyone's motives pure and unsullied? At least the diarist is acting for the good. I hardly find the diary racist. What's the stereotype here? Is it wrong to attempt to faithfully report what happened as well as one is able? You question the diarist's motivation. But this person is trying to make a difference. We all are on a path to understanding. One small step. I don't think it is wise to bully someone who is trying to make a difference. The world's a big place, we need all the help we can get.

      Be kind and patient. It's amazing how far we will all go.

      •  *sigh* (0+ / 0-)

        I haven't spent any time with him but I have spent time with people in similar situations (see my diary "Inequality: I want to have a discussion"), and I've been homeless (though to a "lesser degree" in the eyes of some because I started out with more and was able to reach out for help in different ways) and had people make snap judgments about me.

        Also, what is with your lowercase of the name? Are you entirely ignorant or trying to show disrespect on purpose? Very few people (Japanese or American or whatever) have intentionally lowercase names. Those who do may prefer that (e.g. hide preferred his name to be written in lowercase) but generally noncapitalization of a given name either means you're too sloppy to hit a shift key or you're showing disrespect UNLESS the person has specified their name is to be written lowercase, in which case uppercase is a disrespectful thing.

        And maybe I'm just assuming here, but so much of this diary tends to have a tone of sterotyping Hiro as Japanese and as Asian. That's how it comes off to me.

        Honestly, an hour can be too much or too little. It all depends on what the person has patience and tolerance for.

        Maybe this diarist is trying to make a difference. I don't want to be a purity troll or anything like that (I've had my own bruising run-ins with purity trolls, they suck) but I do think the diarist is going about it in the wrong way.

        Boundaries are a good idea, but to refuse someone food when one could provide it solely because one is afraid it's somehow going to violate boundaries? To schedule friendship itself? "Compassionate conservatism" and "unhelpful help" at its finest.

        Deyama Toshimitsu! You broke my gaydar! I demand a replacement at once!

        by MiscastDice on Sat Dec 20, 2008 at 12:52:36 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Revision (0+ / 0-)

      Thank you, Miscastdice, for pointing out that the diary might be read as stereotyping. My coffee companion "Hiro" is Japanese-American, as you can see in an earlier diary, and he did order the Asian noodle salad, but I changed the name to "Nancy," a woman I also meet with. I want to encourage readers to set up regular coffee meetings with a person who is isolated because of mental illness or socially ghettoized because of homelessness, so I certainly don't want to raise objections in these posts. Again, my thanks for pointing out what came across to you as a problem.

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