How to be a Kind Friend Without Getting Taken Advantage Of
Years ago, I walked in downtown Atlanta as a photographer for a multimedia presentation. A young man approached me from the other side of a chain link fence and began talking. I kept the fence between us and continued composing my shots until his persistence demanded that I either give him attention or send him away.
I gave in a little. He gained advantage as I was there to do photography yet wanted to hear him out. He was black, and admitted he had aids. Wanting to extend myself and prove to be beyond prejudice, I went around the fence and shook his hand. Sure, I would rather that skin color and lifestyle choices would not be factors in the way people relate to each other. But in the nineties, it was this way for me.
When I started to move on with my photography and crossed the street, he jumped out as though he was protecting me from an oncoming car which was still half a block away. I could see what he was doing but was preoccupied with my camera mission and not wanting to be unfriendly. When he asked for a ride, it was my nature to say yes.
Before we reached his destination, though, he was thirsty. Could we stop at the drive-through? Okay, I thought, let's see where this goes. Sure enough, he was also hungry. So I bought him a hamburger and a soda. He started telling me his story, that he had to move his things out of his living space and had no clean clothes and nowhere to go.
At that time my compassion was not balanced by having an equal sense of value for myself. I brought him home, offered that he could clean up in my bathroom and gave him clothes from my closet. Then we returned downtown as he wanted to clear out his shared living space. He said he would be back in ten minutes. I sat in my car in a parking lot, in the shadow of the Coca-Cola tower, for more than half an hour before deciding it was enough. Then I wrote him a note and left it on the asphalt with the bag of clothes I'd given him and drove off.
I did not regret extending myself, but also felt it had gone too far into my being used. Of course, it was my responsibility since at any time I could have said 'no.' Saying 'no' can be difficult. It is best done, I have found, with inner resolve and an even tone of voice. I took the experience as a lesson to moderate kindness with awareness and take a stand for myself when needed.
Balancing kindness with strength is a fine art, to be a kind friend without being used. And it can be a fine line crossed from a relationship that is life-affirming to one that is not. Such situations are complex and there will be no manuals for getting through each one successfully.
In general, though, I feel that a decision to extend oneself in kindness is best made consciously, not as an emotional or sentimental reaction. There is also 'an idea of kindness' or a belief system which includes kindness and says, 'this is what kindness looks like.' This is not the same as conscious kindness, which is a warm feeling in the heart.
Give yourself time to make a wise decision. At least pause, take a breath, and ask yourself how to respond to a request. Remember that saying 'no' can also be the kind thing to do, and that saying 'yes' carries a risk of being taken advantage of. I may accept such a risk knowing that I will learn from it whatever the outcome. Being a kind friend by giving of oneself may be the thing to do. Still, there are times when the 'person in need' is best left to go through their own lessons to discover their innate strengths and mature in themselves.
Once I have started a course of being a kind friend to one in need, it is well to stay in command of myself and be prepared to alter or halt the course, by communicating transparently. Generally, to continue receiving my attention as a kind friend, that person will do their part and not leave it to me to cover the distance. I give Euro coins unconditionally to a person sitting on the sidewalk in the cold, but it is also okay to extend 'kindness with conditions' when a person is capable of bringing something to the table.
The other side of this has been to look at myself in times when people have been a kind friend to me, and to understand how my behavior was perceived by them. An example is when I was robbed on the Canary Islands, leaving my partner and me in Spain without passport or funds. We had to fly to Madrid for a temporary passport to be able to exit the country, and then to London to receive a new credit card from my bank in America. This shock came after a series of shocks, and left my partner and me traumatized.
We flew to America and at their invitation stayed two weeks with friends, an older couple we knew from years before. From my perspective, we were the ideal house guests. I thought we were non-intrusive and brought highlights to their lives. They offered a small loan and told us to not worry about re-paying. We repaid it promptly along with a gift of items we'd found to be their favorites. In my eyes, our bond of friendship had deepened. I was saddened then, to hear that our stay had been a strain for them. Looking back I could see how in subtle ways they felt my stress and at their age it had been a burden.
When life presents opportunities for any of us to be kind to each other, along with the risk of stress or strain, which way shall we move the door? Ultimate kindness begins with kindness towards oneself, and an open heart that is also strong may be the key.
From a poem written by the hub author for his partner:
I am your friend and that I know,
in the rain and in the snow.
And in the heat of summer sun,
you and I, not we but One.