An Easy Question to Answer?

“Why do I want to help others?”

On the surface, this seems like an easy question to answer.

When I was 6 years old, I lived with my family in Manila, Philippines, where I first saw what urban poverty looked like. I remember seeing children and adults approach our van on the road, tap on the windows, and try to sell us feather dusters, dish cloths, or garlands of sampaguita flowers.

My mother would sometimes buy something, and other times she would wave the people away. Even as a child, it was clear to me that there was something wrong with how there were children my age on the road approaching strangers’ cars for money, while I sat in an air-conditioned van on my way to school.

I’m 24 now and I live in Washington, D.C., and I have the same reactions when I see people who are homeless in this city. I feel a mixture of pity and guilt, and I feel a compulsion to help and engage in some way, but I often don’t. Despite my own feelings, I often don’t do anything. When I break those feelings down, these questions arise:

  • Why do I feel guilt? Shouldn’t I feel angry about inequality, not only guilty?
  • Do I want to help because I feel uncomfortable? Is that a good or bad thing? What does that say about my motivations?
  • Why do I choose to do nothing? Is that a sign that I am selfish even when I think I am being sympathetic?
  • How real is my desire to help? Would I prioritize someone else’s needs over my own comfort?
  • What am I assuming about people’s abilities, intelligence, and competence when I say that they need my help? What am I getting wrong in my perspective? What do I need to change?

I ask these questions to be honest with myself. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to help others, but I believe that we have to reflect on what else might be wrapped up in that seemingly “altruistic” desire. A true act of service focuses on what others define as their needs and priorities – not on the helper’s emotional experiences.

“Think about what you’re doing before you make another community’s struggle into your therapy session… What kind of relationships are built on guilt and shame?” – An essay featured on Indigenous Action Media

Guilt and shame leave the door wide open for pity and saviorism. What can people with privilege do to envision another way? Can we build relationships based on humility and respect? Can we come to terms with our own emotional baggage before we stand in solidarity with others? I believe that we can.

A turning point for me in my journey was when I realized that I did not know what it was like to experience material poverty or financial insecurity, even though I cared about reducing poverty in other people’s lives. Admitting this was freeing, because it also meant admitting that I had a lot to learn, especially about how people coping with material poverty deal with those situations and actively find solutions.

Along the way, I have learned to:

  • Approach others with an attitude of humility that acknowledges their capacities, strengths, and potential, even if I observe them dealing with difficult situations.
  • Remember that I am not the hero, and accept that I may not even be the sidekick. I am a spectator; someone who has been invited to a space on someone else’s terms.
  • Respect that my perspective is limited, and recognize that there will always be parts to a person’s story that I will not know about, no matter how much I think I already know.
  • Listen – really listen – to people, and not assume that I know what their concerns are.
  • Challenge myself to live up to my commitments. If I am serious about supporting a cause, I have to think about concrete ways that I can contribute, and I have to ask myself if I am willing to give up time or money for it.

“Ally is an action. It’s not who you are.” – Stephanie Sneed from the DC Fair Budget Coalition at an event held on March 22, 2017

Solidarity is something that can cover our whole lives if we let it. We can let it go beyond a single emotional response and instead let it affect our mindsets, our attitudes, our consumption habits, and our consciousness. We can let it change us.

It was only when I started asking myself the hard questions – Why do I want to help? What am I willing to give up? How far am I willing to push my comfort zone? Why do I care about being “the hero”? – that I finally got the answers that I was looking for.

So let us start asking the hard questions of ourselves, and never stop! You never know what you might find.


If there are hard questions and honest answers that you have uncovered in your own journey, feel free to share them in the comments!


By Angela Jia-Yin Ng (Communications and Fundraising Fellow at International Development Exchange (IDEX))

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.