Why I Think We Should Examine Our Motivations to Help Others

When I was young, I was involved in programs at a church in the low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood where my family lived.

One day when I was 16 years old, some friends and I were walking down the street when we came across a couple of shiny new vans delivering a small hoard of white kids dressed in optimistic clothes to the church.

Curious, we we asked some of the youth what they were doing. Nonchalantly, they said they were here to paint this ghetto church, pointing at our fortress of hope.

When we asked if we could help, an adult with the group told us it was their project, and they’d be doing the painting. We brought our concerns to the minister, who explained they were missionaries from another state and this was mission trip, to paint our church.

That didn’t make any sense to me then, and I spent more than a decade trying to reconcile their well-meaning intention and my sense of dejection.

As an adult, I’ve met bunches and bunches of well-meaning middle class people and white people who want to save the world without ever looking at how to empower people to save themselves. These same folks rarely examine their own complicity in oppression and the ongoing slight of snobbery in volunteerism and philanthropy.

With so many people more focused on “changing the world” today, I think it’s high time that we reflect on Gandhi’s call for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world. We each have to examine our motivation.

I’ve been writing about that process for a long time without ever offering rationale for why that matters. The story I share here is meant to show one reason.

If you’re interested, check out my PETS (Personal Engagement Tip Sheets) for practical ways to look inside yourself before you try to change the world. You might also read my poem, Missionary. One of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read about examining our motivations is a speech given by Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions,” where he critically examines what it means to serve others. I also recommend Paulo Freire’s last book, which pushed me to embrace my own assumptions in new ways. Its called Pedagogy of Indignation.

After that, if you want to connect about what to do next just drop me a note.

The Crisis of Disengagement—A Tip Sheet by Adam Fletcher

Personal Engagement is the sustained connection a person has to the world within themselves.

—Adam F. C. Fletcher

In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.


Causes of Disengagement

First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.


What Disengagement Causes

Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.

Psychologists talk about this as a phenomenon that needs addressed through intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory and goal theory, and the need to investigate the gaps between people, as well as what possible ways to maintain or stimulate peoples’ motivations to exchange social capital. They believe environments can be intentionally maintained to enhances the self-concept, social efficacy, and a sense of volition as well as self-determination to circumvent the demise of social capital. And all that’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to continue studying it to learn more.


Essential Learning

Adam training youth at Eastern Washington University in 2012.

However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:

  • Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
  • Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.

That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Disengagement is a solvable problem.

My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!


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