To know when to be generous and when to be firm -- this is wisdom. Elbert HubbardLast night I taught at Project Forward at the shelter where I work. Project Forward is fundamentally a financial management course, my role is to provide the life-skills component to help the individuals in the class build positive habits around their money, and their lives. Because it's January, we are focusing on goals. Creating them. Setting them. Planning for them.
During the conversation around goals, one of the attendees said, "But I don't know what I really want."
I walked up to the whiteboard and wrote down a question. "What do you want more of in your life?"
Quickly he responded, "Peace. Stability."
Another student added in. "Security. Integrity."
"Honesty. Trust." added another.
"What are the things you're doing now that undermine having these things in your life?" I asked.
The first student who responded, I'll call him Cliff, jumped in quickly. "Everything!" He paused. "Well, not everything. I am working part-time. That is giving me a lot of stability. But take for example yesterday. Somebody asked to borrow a pack of cigarettes and I gave it to him. He's promised to pay me back."
"Well.... I want to believe him, but..." He grinned sheepishly. "He hasn't paid me back the pack I lent him last week nor the money he owes me."
"So, you didn't really lend them to him. You gave them to him."
"Well, no. I want him to pay me back."
"Do you believe he will?"
He paused. Squirmed in his seat. "No."
"Who's got the problem?"
Pause. "I do."
"And what's the problem?"
"But if I don't lend him the cigs when he knows I've got them, he went to the store with me when I bought them, then he'll be mad at me. I like his friendship."
"Which is greater?" I asked. "Your fear of his being mad at you or your desire for peace and stability in your life? Will giving away the money you've worked hard to earn, the money that's vital to your moving away from here, get you more of what you want in your life or less?"
"But, I want to be friends with him. How can I do that if I don't help him out?"
"Does letting him borrow from you knowing you don't expect him to pay you back help him out?" I pointed to the words on the board. "Not one of you said you want more money in your life. Now, I know you do. You need money to get out of living here [in the shelter]. You need financial security to move on with your lives. But what underlies it are these things. Peace. Stability. Trust. Those are the things you want. Do you think your friend wants those things too?"
"Yeah. I know he does. That's why he's working to get out of here."
"So, in giving him permission to act without integrity in his relationship with you, who wins?"
"But, how do I say no?"
One of the students jumped in quickly with, "Just say, No. Don't talk about it. Just say, No. You don't have to be rude, but you do need to say it."
Just say No.
Cliff* pondered his suggestion. His body squirmed in his seat. He tapped his pencil against the boardroom table. "That's really hard."
"What if you turned around the equation. Remember at the beginning I asked, Who has the problem?"
"Yeah." He took a breath. Tapped his pencil against his forehead. "I do."
"And who has the power to find the answers that work for him?"
He nodded his head. "I do."
I pointed again to the list of things people in the room wanted more of in their lives. "What if you didn't look at it as saying 'no', but thought of it as saying yes to the things you want more of in your life? What will give you more peace and stability in your life?"
"Learning how to be responsible around money. Saving it. Getting a place of my own." Cliff replied.
"If you lend someone money, knowing you won't get it back, are you being responsible?"
"Your choice. Keep doing what you've always done and get what you've always got, or do something different. Start treating yourself with integrity. Start giving yourself the chance to create the life you want by being true to you."
"But it's so hard."
"Which hurts more? Beating yourself down or lifting yourself up?
It was a great lesson for me. Helping others is not noble when I bring myself down, when I deplete my resources or undermine my integrity. When I give other people permission to act without integrity in my life, I am acting without integrity. I am not being 100% accountable for me.
The question is: Are you undermining your integrity by telling yourself that you must give to others what you do not have to give? Are you willing to act with integrity by telling yourself the truth about what you're doing by allowing others to act without integrity in your life?