Chump or Heel? Giving money to an old friend or not?
March 9, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I can't decide if I should offer any financial assistance to an old HS friend and his family who are facing some heavy duty medical bills also while enduring extended unemployment.

I have an old high school friend (we graduated more than 30 years ago) who has an MA and worked in the financial sector until he lost his job in 2009. He's been unemployed since. His wife, who also has an MA, has apparently been a stay-at-home mom for their two grade school kids. My friend and his wife have been in dire financial straits for quite some time– they were on food stamps for awile– but things took an even darker turn for them recently when the wife was diagnosed with cancer. As you would hope, their family and friends are all pulling together to help them both spiritually and financially, and therein lies my dilemma.

My friend and his wife were close to my first wife and I, but she and I divorced 18 years ago and I've never heard from my friend since. My friend and his wife, however, have apparently maintained regular contact with my ex. My ex, my friend and I were part of a close social group in high school and that closeness remains to this day, at least between some of us. My contact with most of that group has been minimal over the years but it still feels like an extended family to me.

I want to give my friend and his wife some financial assistance but here's my problem: My friend has never shown a desire to have a one-to-one relationship with me. He has been far closer to the others in our social group over the years than to me, and they have with him, to the point where my social connection to them now seems tenuous as best. I also find myself resenting the fact that my friend and his wife are in this financial situation despite both having advanced degrees yet I, with nothing but a HS diploma, would be helping to support them! His wife is a wonderful person and I feel terrible about her diagnosis, but I'm really on the fence as to what I should do. Were the tables turned, I don't think that my friend would ever consider offering anything to me. We're just not that close. My wife was in the hospital for weeks a few years ago with a very serious health problem, but not only did I not hear from my friend or his wife but I recently learned that he didn't even know about it.

I really am on the fence with this. My instinct is to be me, which is to say reach out to him and help, but why should I if he's never shown any intention of ever doing the same for me?

How can I send them any assistance without feeling like a chump? Or would I be a heel for not helping a fellow I've known for 30 years whose wife is facing cancer with no financial means of support? I can afford to help them but just barely.

Chump or heel?
posted by Jamesonian to Human Relations (38 answers total)
why should I if he's never shown any intention of ever doing the same for me?

The reason to avoid this kind of thinking is that the whole of human charity and generosity would break down pretty quickly if that's how everybody thought.

You say that you want to give assistance. Your misgivings are both personal and philosophical, but they are going to haunt you whether you give or not. So, might as well give.

The way to avoid feeling like a chump in the process is to only give as much as you'd give to anyone in his situation, regardless of these personal details. That way you can shrug it off later if you have to.
posted by hermitosis at 11:53 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

You've had no relationship with this guy for almost 20 years...and now you want to finance his medical care?

Sorry if I sound cold but I don't understand why you would want to do that. He's practically a stranger to you.
posted by dfriedman at 11:55 AM on March 9, 2011 [17 favorites]

I'm with dfriedman. You haven't "known" him for 30 years, you knew him 30 years ago. You shouldn't feel obligated by some tangental relationship, especially if your gut reaction to it is Chump or Heel.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 11:58 AM on March 9, 2011

You're not a heel if you choose not to help out. You're not a chump if you do choose to help out.

I wouldn't feel any particular inclination to help out someone I hadn't spoken to in 18 years in that way.

However, if you are sincerely moved to help, don't let the thought that it would make you a "chump" stop you—I mean, if you heard of a complete stranger in his situation, and decided to help out of the goodness of your heart, that wouldn't make you a chump, right? So it certainly wouldn't make you a chump to do the same good deed for someone with whom you have a slightly stronger relationship than a complete stranger.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:01 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

This guy's a stranger to you. Don't be putting yourself in a hole to help him out.
posted by IanMorr at 12:01 PM on March 9, 2011

I think sending some sort of letter, saying that you'd heard of their troubles and you fondly remember the old days, and are praying/keeping good thoughts/suitable sentiments and enclosing a gift card for some useful place--Target, dinner out, Costco,Am-Ex in a decent amount of $$ ($100 to $200 is what sprung to my mind.) is a nice thing to do. I know you haven't see the guy in years, but I think they wouldn't be offended (a huge amount might be weird) and you'd know you did a nice thing. Don't be surprised if you don't get a thank-you.

Or you could do it anonymously, too.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:02 PM on March 9, 2011 [15 favorites]

My wife was in the hospital for weeks a few years ago with a very serious health problem, but not only did I not hear from my friend or his wife but I recently learned that he didn't even know about it.

Well, if he didn't know about it, don't judge him for his lack of action.

my friend and his wife are in this financial situation despite both having advanced degrees yet I, with nothing but a HS diploma, would be helping to support them!

Those degrees were probably not free.

It sounds like the two of you aren't that close, but is that really entirely his doing? People grow apart without it being anyone's fault. Basically, an acquaintance is going through a rough time. If this was coworker's brother or your cousin's neighbor, what would you do? If donating money is your normal reaction to this type of news about another family with less personal history, then you should not feel like a chump in giving some to this family. If you normally wouldn't, this doesn't have to be any different.
posted by soelo at 12:02 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm with dfriedman. You owe him nothing. You know the saying "you know who your friends are, when you are in need?". You found out 18 years ago. He made his choice. He has to live with it.

Why should you not nonetheless help him? Because the whole world needs help. There are more worthy causes than there is money in the world. So you have to be selective. If you give to one, you necessarily cannot give to another, simply because you have limited choices. So now you have to choose. And he has shown who he is. Yes, you help friends. You also help, and indeed should help, strangers - through donating to various charities and causes. But there is no need to give to those who have explicitly chosen to associate with you.
posted by VikingSword at 12:03 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why are you even considering this? You don't know him well, you think he might not like you, and you have feelings of resentment about even the idea of helping him, even though you came up with the plan yourself. This makes no sense to me.
posted by something something at 12:04 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

If "being you" is to reach out and help, then "be you". I can understand spite and anger. And maybe they never would help you in return. And maybe that sucks. I can understand if they abused offers of help from you before, but it doesn't sound like that's the case.

Don't give more than you can afford.

But if you feel compassionate enough that the idea has crossed your mind, then why not give a little? It doesn't have to be a lot, but any little bit helps. If you're worried that you'll look stingy if you don't give a lot, then that's their issue, not yours.

Don't give a little to be spiteful though.

Ultimately the question is whether you want to help someone, as hermitosis said, who's a human. Disregard the friendship. Would you donate some money to help one of those "community fundraisers" that people setup when someone falls into dire straits (usually w/cancer, from what I've seen)? If not, then, I guess, no need to do it here. I think compassion breeds compassion and it'd be a good thing if, since the thought had crossed your mind, to do so.

To give into spite and anger and resentment doesn't help you be a better human. At the very least, if it comes down to emotional issues, you can know that you were "the better man" who did this. It's a horrible rationalization, but if that helps you to help another person? I think that's better than spiteful(?) non-giving.
posted by symbioid at 12:04 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you feel like helping someone out, go for it. Do it anonymously. Do it without the expectation of any return. Do it because you want to lend a helping hand. And if you decide not to contribute to this family, choose another family. We all deserve some sort of kindness.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:05 PM on March 9, 2011 [11 favorites]

Well, first off, you should never do a good deed expecting more than a simple "thanks" in return. (You wouldn't want people to expect certain things from you, either, right?) Your assistance isn't meant to be paid back; how can anyone predict when or how they might be able to do so? Whatever you do end up getting in return is icing on the cake.

The family probably feels like they have very little control over their lives right now, so if you decide to do something, think about ways in which they could feel less beholden to you and more able to use the assistance in a way of their choosing.

That's the tough part about (on a much smaller scale) giving away handmade things, for example: you don't know how the person will treat them, but you have to live with it because even though you put your time and your heart into them, these things don't belong to you anymore.

Think about how you deal with those kinds of situations, then multiply your emotions to the much larger scale of helping someone in need. How would you react if they spent this money on a vacation, or new clothes? What if you saw them on the street and they didn't wave?

How would your ex feel about this? Do you and she have a good relationship? If not, would this impact your relationship in a way that would affect your current life (got a new wife? any kids, with the new wife or the ex?). Maybe you should ask her what she thinks, given that she's a closer friend to them right now.

Do you have any idea why you're not closer now? At the very least, you can provide some support in a very difficult time. In times like these, people tend to peel away from social networks when they're unsure how to interact with someone facing a difficult financial or medical situation. It's easier just to back away. If you come to them without restrictions on your friendship, I'll bet they would really appreciate that. It can't be easy to lose the support you've counted on, so don't be surprised if they're more wary than usual.

On that note, is there a way for you to donate something other than just money -- time, space, support, services such as meals or financial planning, etc.? They might cost a similar amount of money, but it could seem a little less like "Oh, there goes Jamesonian throwing money at a problem" (in your mind or someone else's).

Is there a way to set up an anonymous fund?

If you're okay with all of that, and you feel like you can give freely and expect nothing in return... go ahead.
posted by Madamina at 12:05 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry meant "chosen NOT to associate with you.
posted by VikingSword at 12:05 PM on March 9, 2011

I suggest making a one time anonymous contribution in an ammount you are comfortable with. This will make you feel good, help them, and avoid chumpdom. I caution against offering to pay their electric bill every month, and re-starting a complicated relationship that they really don't sound like they are in a good place to examine right now.
posted by rainbaby at 12:06 PM on March 9, 2011

How can I send them any assistance without feeling like a chump?

Here is my understanding of what would lead you to feeling like a chump, please forgive me if I'm reading you wrong:

1. You want to do this because you believe it's the right thing to do for longtime/close friends.
2. You don't know if this family considers you to be really friends or not, much less close friends.
3. If you make a gesture of close friendship towards this family, and they don't feel the same way about the friendship that you do, and/or wouldn't do the same for you in return, you would feel stupid.

In light of that, I think you could send them an amount that would not make you feel like a chump if you received NOTHING in return from the family - no call, no thank you, no fond feelings, no friendship. So if you would send $500 to a good friend, maybe you could send $100, or $50. The maximum you would donate to a totally unknown family in this situation, who you didn't expect anything from.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:07 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you should help him. And I'm not advising this to be unkind to someone in need, it's just that you don't know if maybe next week or next year someone in your family or extended family might need financial help. Likewise, their family should step in and help them out if need be.
posted by anniecat at 12:07 PM on March 9, 2011

Sending an anonymous gift has two advantages -- they don't feel awkwardly beholden to someone they don't know well, and you don't feel like a jerk when you don't get a thank you.

I don't think you have any duty to send these particular people money, but I think that sending a small amount you can spare easily will make you feel more aligned with your own generous nature than your own spiteful nature, which are currently at odds. I think, if I were you, that would make me feel happier in the long run.
posted by endless_forms at 12:12 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I will go ahead and help them to the best of my abilities.

Yes, I know you feel hurt in some way, e.g., losing touch with them after your divorce, or that they had advanced degrees, good jobs, and yet did not make good financial decisions... la di da, la di da, la la...

All these stuff are unimportant.

Personally, if I will to learn about something like what you described, I will jump to action and the only questions I will have are,

a) how I can help (money, companionship, etc)

b) when I can help (now, next week, periodically)

c) where I can help (directly, and/or indirectly by mustering support from others)
posted by jchaw at 12:18 PM on March 9, 2011

Donate a small amount, anonymously. Maybe consider donating what you were thinking of giving him to an organization that distributes assistance to people who need it.
posted by elpea at 12:21 PM on March 9, 2011

I don't know if someone mentioned this but why dont you contact your mutual group of friends and try to get something together with them? Someone closer to him might know what is needed most and when you combine forces with others you will do even more good. Plus it has the added bonus of removing you from direct contact but you still took the initiative to start the whole campaign.
posted by Busmick at 12:36 PM on March 9, 2011

Sorry upon re-reading it looks like other people are doing something. Again I say tag - along with them if you can.
To answer your other question I think this is a good thing if you have the money. Its like donating to a charity but you can directly see your impact. Even if you hated this guy in high school hes still a person who needs help.
posted by Busmick at 12:39 PM on March 9, 2011

Have you considered anonymous assistance? It would satisfy the desire to assist, without encouraging further contact/and-or changing the status quo of the relationship between you & them.
posted by Ys at 12:45 PM on March 9, 2011

If you want to make a gesture of goodwill that will help alleviate someone's suffering, I don't see what anything else has to do with it. It really doesn't matter if he hasn't spoken to you in years, if you feel that it's important to help out a family facing poverty and cancer.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:46 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Give. You won't lie on your deathbed regretting that you gave $100 to an old friend in grave need from whom you had drifted apart. You won't lie on your deathbed glad that you allowed your misgivings, fears of being taken and minor resentments to keep your money in your pocket.

Honestly, I've given "foolish" gifts of money and resources to friends both close and distant. Sometimes I have a little twinge..."Oh, I wish I had that $400 that I gave Friend to keep him from getting evicted, knowing he'd never pay it back", but basically I don't regret those gifts at all. (I do regret spending foolishly on myself.) In fact, there are several instances where I wish I'd given more and with a better heart.

Unobligated giving is, to me, one of the few places of real freedom - I don't have to help this person, there are no penalties if I don't, I probably won't get any it's purely my freedom, my choice. And I can choose to reject the logic of the market--who "deserves" help and who "deserves" eviction/poverty/hunger. I can give as I see fit, whether it's $5 to the homeless woman (will she spend it on her kids? food? drugs? I don't care, I'm not judge and executioner!) or $100 to a friend.

If you're moved to give, you should give.
posted by Frowner at 12:47 PM on March 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

Is there a part of you that wishes he'd been better friends with you after your divorce, and that helping him now might strengthen that friendship or renew his interest in a friendship with you? If so, I think that he will not see that you gave him money and think to himself, "I should be better friends with him!"

If you are even partially motivated by wanting to have a closer friendship, I think bringing over the occasional casserole, offering to drive them to the hospital or watch the kids, or the occasional thoughtful letter might go further in reaching this goal (and will be warmly received).
posted by Houstonian at 1:05 PM on March 9, 2011


I can afford to help them but just barely.

If it's just barely then I wouldn't bother - you never know when the tides could turn against yourself.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 1:37 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think it would be completely lame and inappropriate to give anonymously. You were friends at one time and you should honour that. You should send a personal note expressing your wishes for the wife's recovery along with a check. Not a gift certificate, they need cash right now. Your note may comfort them more than your money.

Besides, who knows why they've been out of touch, maybe your ex-wife bad-mouthed you and they took her side. It's irrelevant. They are in need right now, you are able to help, do it. Rise above those long-ago grievances.
posted by Dragonness at 1:37 PM on March 9, 2011

I can afford to help them but just barely.

I missed this. In that case, obviously you have to put your family first.
posted by Dragonness at 1:41 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a little unclear on something - have they asked you for money?

If they're not asking you for money, and you feel ambivalent about the prospect of giving it to them, then... Don't give them your money.

If they've asked, and you want to give, then give. It's a good deed and good for your karma.

If you don't really want to give, this may make you feel better: I graduated from high school 12 years ago and would probably not lend money to a friend from back then who I'd since lost touch with.
posted by Sara C. at 1:44 PM on March 9, 2011

I recently listened to speech the Al Sharpton gave where he talked about forgiving the guy who stabbed him and tried to kill him. This is apropos of nothing except after listening to Al Sharpton, I've decided in my own life that I'm going to err on the side of being generous and not care what other people think. So if it were me, I'd probably make a small contribution.
posted by bananafish at 2:53 PM on March 9, 2011

Giving is frequently about the giver more than it is about the recipient. You might not fully understand the "why?" part until after the act.

Make a deliberate decision about how much you want to give. Make it anonymous. I'm sure you could find a confidential way to route the funds through a social service organization, church, or the like. Don't tell anyone except your wife, and promise each other that you'll not speak of it with others or even with the recipients.

Unless you're looking for a medal, which you won't get anyway. You'll just get everyone else from the Old Country calling you up with their own financial problems. And could I get your number too?

If you've ever read the "official" story of Saint Nicholas, you'd know this is not too far removed from how he got his start in the gift-giving business.
posted by Itinakak at 3:05 PM on March 9, 2011

Is there any reason you can't take them a pan of lasagna?
posted by bq at 3:21 PM on March 9, 2011

Do it if you want to. I don't mean to be trite, but it's really that simple. You don't owe him anything and what he would do for you is irrelevant, so remove all the bogus calculations. If you want to be charitable, be charitable; if not, don't.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:26 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the nicest possible way, this question seems very wrapped up in resentment and insecurity and tit for tat that is not what the spirit of giving is supposed to be about. These people are so burdened already; please don't give them a gift that comes with the burden of gratitude on top of that.

I sincerely suggest you anonymously send them a gift card from Target, Wal*Mart, FreshDirect or any other food retailer. If you cannot bring yourself to do it anonymously, don't do it.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:28 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

How can I send them any assistance without feeling like a chump? Or would I be a heel for not helping a fellow I've known for 30 years whose wife is facing cancer with no financial means of support? I can afford to help them but just barely.

Unfortunately I have to run so I'm going to give you the "quick" answer. If you feel hurt by the fact that your friend turned his back on you 30 years ago, then the incredible thing to do here is to not look back and offer him total friendship, reconciliation and forgiveness. And to really look within, perhaps meditate, on what that means from you. I bet if you concentrate on your good motives, you will find what the right action is to take in your heart.

I promise you, you will find the answer does not come in the form of money. You are not, after all, a bank. You're a human being. Cutting a check is something you do with a cause or with a stranger. I truly believe part of your discomfort with this is you know have a lot more to offer.
posted by phaedon at 5:12 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

They sound like they have had a run of bad luck (if you think your employment and good health is soley because you are a hard worker/eat your veggies you are quite mistaken). My family recently also had some bad luck. Fortunately the people that love us pulled together in support, even if we had not spoken in years. The very few people that knew, and chose to keep their distance out of embarrassment or judgement or resentment: I am glad I now know who they truly are.

I believe you should give what you feel comfortable with, cash, rather than gift cards (I still have gift cards for places that were convienient for the gifter but impossible for me to get to). Support should be something they cannot do for themselves; please don't do something they can still do (like, I don't know, offer to walk the kids to school when it is the highlight of the mom's day) because that is very disempowering and will make them feel even worse. Most importantly, write a letter or card reminding them they WILL get through this and they have a group of people that are willing to be there for them. Believe me, it is truly the Thought that counts.
posted by saucysault at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Give. If your first thought was to give and not "shit no I'm not going to give that guy anything!" Then I think you'd like to give.

This isn't about obligation or quid pro quo. Its opportunity to do something for someone you like that will really make a difference during a really life shattering time.

Give what you can afford to give. And if you miss the friendship, say that too.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:12 AM on March 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your comments. My friends don't live close to me, so I cannot do anything in person. After reading the many opinions you offered, I decided to send my friend's wife a gift of some edibles which she particularly enjoys with a short message from my family and I. I only know of their financial condition by hearing it from friends who are close to them, but the wife has openly shared her health problems. For this reason, I've chosen to address only the latter by sending her a small collection of gourmet edibles I know she enjoys along with a short note of support and best wishes from my family and me. Since I'm not sufficiently wealthy to alleviate their financial worries, maybe I can give her a few minutes of solace while indulging in a favored taste treat.

Again, thank you all for your generous comments.
posted by Jamesonian at 8:35 AM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

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