Dear Dr. Andrea,
I am in my early 30s and work in an industry that did very well because of the pandemic and experienced a major uptick in sales. This is easy enough to feel guilty about, but my parents are falling on increasingly hard times. My mother was laid off as the pandemic began and is still unable to find work. They are not in a financial place where retirement for either of them makes sense. I am watching them struggle but they will not accept my help.
I recently got a very large promotion; it is a lot of money. I live frugally and now have a lot of money to spare and would like to help my parents out. They have always worked hard and they put me through college. But they say absolutely not. I am left feeling uncomfortable and stressed about their own stress, but helpless in being able to do anything about it.
Moreover, a lot of my friends have struggled with finances, job insecurity and layoffs this past year. It is odd that my career is doing so well and doing so well in large part because of something that caused such misfortune to other people. I am having a really hard time reconciling all of this. It feels upsetting to celebrate my successes even to myself when they came at the expense of others. And the thing that I would find a high priority as a reason to even have a financial cushion in the first place — to help my loved ones — is a no-go, so it has me feeling very confused and uncomfortable.
Clearly the answer is not to just walk away from my job, but how do I get my head on straight about this?
— Just want to help
It’s clear you are a compassionate, thoughtful person — something the world certainly needs more of. Unfortunately, those qualities can occasionally make things tough for the person who possesses them, especially in cases like these, when you feel helpless and thwarted in expressing those values and acting meaningfully on them.
But just because you can’t help your parents in the specific way you’d prefer (and I do think you need to respect their wishes), that doesn’t mean you can’t act on your generosity and empathy in other ways — which will make you feel less helpless. And just because you can’t wave a magic wand to make it so that the pandemic never happened, that doesn’t mean you can’t take initiative in other ways to put some healing back into the world, and to do some good with the benefits that you have reaped.
So, first, your parents. Giving a check or taking care of their mortgage for a month is probably a no-go. But perhaps popping over with dinners (if they’re local) or giving them fun gift cards for an interesting meal delivery service is very much within the realm of possibility. And think of the non-monetary ways you can help. Listening, making them laugh, sending them fun little day-brighteners: Those are all loving gestures from child to parent that need not have anything to do with layoffs or income differentials, and that lessen stress — which has quite a bit of non-monetary value.
It’s the same with your friends. You can’t eradicate their financial worries, but you can pick up the check for a relaxing night out, be supportive and understanding when they want to vent, and be sensitive in suggesting and choosing anxiety-relieving activities that don’t cost anything.
It’s painful to watch people you love in distress. And I think a major additional part of your upset is feeling disconnected from living out your values — which form a big part of our sense of purpose. But that disconnect can be a positive thing when it helps highlight our priorities, serving as a reminder of the people we want to be. The more paths you can find to take action in accordance with your values, the less unsettled you’ll feel — and the more good you’ll do for the people around you. Look into some charitable giving that truly resonates with what you care about.
It’s not about buying off your guilt. It’s about making the choice to create little impacts where you can, taking action on behalf of the things that matter to you, and putting your resources toward what you believe in. Life is complicated; pain and joy are not a zero-sum game. Acknowledging and even celebrating your own successes need not be mutually exclusive with recognizing the hardship within others’ lives. In fact, the more direct ways you find to make your success mean something in the deeper story of your life’s purpose, the more that success is something to feel good about.