Why I Think We Should Examine Our Motivations to Help Others

This is Adam Fletcher Sasse in 1992 at Omaha North High School.

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.

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