Good Deeds and Broken Systems
Photo by Jasper Garratt on Unsplash

Good Deeds and Broken Systems

Among the many pathological features of social media, there’s an argument that happens whenever we celebrate a generous act. Here’s a recent example that I found in 30 seconds of searching Twitter.

Fred Tabares is a middle-school art teacher who teaches in an area where many of his students can’t afford supplies. “Mister T,” as he’s known, also works weekends as a dish washer at a local restaurant, and he used what he earned there to help buy art supplies for his over 400 students. A heroic and lovely act that’s worthy of praise.

One publication framed the story this way:

Basically on cue, another tells Mister T’s story with this:

Both tweets are true, by the way, but they tell very different stories. (Even though the underlying article is word-for-word identical!) The odds are pretty good that your thoughts about it lined up with one of these two perspectives. We're inclined to either praise good deeds or denounce broken systems. Together, though, they reveal a truth about how help is needed, how it’s provided, and what you should do about it.

Systemic vs. Ministered Help

All the help that happens in the world generally happens in one of two ways:

1. Systemic Help. We have policies, funding, programs, or the like to address a persistent need. For examples, think of things like safety nets, scholarships, blood drives, and banking rules.

2. Ministered Help. Not meant in a religious sense, ministered help is given when one person attends to the needs of another. For this kind of help, think of rides to the airport, rent covered, study groups, and shoulders to cry on.

Much of the help that happens in the world reflects both kinds, like with a case worker helping a family through unemployment. The system hires the case worker, and then the case worker provides the help in a ministered way to the family.

But, much of the help in the world is one OR the other. Consider regulations that reduce pollution, for example. Individual people might implement technology to reduce pollution from a specific coal plant, but no one is custom delivering the cleaner air for any of us to breathe. There is no ministration in such rules, but they can reduce air pollution that kills a shocking number of people each year.

Humanity Needs Both Kinds of Help

You might be in the camp that bristles at stories like this one about Mister T. Imagine if, instead of having to work a dishwashing job so his students can make art, he had a district-provided budget. School teachers already are paid too little, so Mister T’s sacrifice exposes an injustice.

But it’s impossible for systemic help to address every possible need. That’s because every system has gaps, unintended oversights that leave people neglected. For example, I could set up a hotline to help people through their breakups (and charge less than my competition), but most people facing a breakup either wouldn't know about it or would prefer to talk to a friend.

In fact, systemic help is sometimes less efficient and effective than ministered help. People who see a need when it appears are often best positioned to make things better. This is why someone who has a financial setback is more likely to turn to friends and family before they turn to safety net programs, even ones that are well-run. (Here's a fascinating breakdown of how Americans give and receive financial help.) Getting help from those close to us is just faster and easier.

But ministered help doesn’t scale like systems. We can’t reasonably expect there to be enough teachers like Mister T to provide art supplies by moonlighting. In fact, the tough conditions that teachers face persistently gets us fewer of them than we need. To consider more examples, not everyone who struggles financially can call their parents, or who contemplates suicide can call a friend, or who breathes smoggy air can escape what they’re inhaling.

What We Can Do About It

For humanity to flourish, we will always need both kinds of help, systemic and ministered. Knowing that, what can we do about it?

First, here’s what NOT to do. Don’t shunt people like Mister T to the side and condescendingly tweet, “That’s generous, but it should never have been needed in the first place! The people running that school district should be ashamed.” Don’t attack the people honoring Mister T for his abundant generosity or sharing what he did. And then don’t scroll on past the story, never lifting a finger even giving those kids or Mister T another thought.

Instead, here’s how to get better at both kinds of help:

1. For systemic help, first realize that the problems are complex. They’re big and heavy and need lots of people pushing. Go find the people who are already doing that well to help them push. Then, as you help the experts, learn more about the problem so you become an expert too. You’ll also need to get good at organizing things, telling compelling stories, and being patient with setbacks.

2. For ministered help, celebrate and be inspired by the good examples. Get to know the people around you by spending time with them. Take good care of yourself and those close to you so that you're better positioned to help others. As you do these things, opportunities will come. Act when they appear.

Finally, don't let indignation feel like a solution. Our social media anger is no more than debris washed along in the flood.

As for Mister T, what an amazing act of love and dedication. The attention it brought has inspired others, including a $10,000 donation to pay for his students’ art supplies. The more people we can get who act like him, the better.

Things to Read/Watch/Hear

How effective altruism went from a niche movement to a billion-dollar force

Effective Altruism has been in the news lately thanks to Will McAskill's new book, What We Owe the Future. If you're curious to learn more about EA, this article gives a brief history and good assessment of what it's all about today.

The Best Way to Win a Negotiation, According to a Harvard Business Professor

I normally roll my eyes at the negotiation advice you can find on YouTube, because it's often just superstitious posturing. But this video has excellent, research-backed advice, along with an exceptional moral insight at the end. Worth the watch.

How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel

An abundance of money comes with real psychological emotional risks, including reduced empathy, clouded moral judgment, and addiction. A good summary of research on the topic.

Promotional Stuff

If you haven't yet listened to my podcast episode with Dr. Naa Vanderpuye-Donton, then you're missing out on a chance to listen to a uniquely incredible person. One of my listeners had this to say about the episode:

If you have never listened to a podcast before, do NOT let this one be your first. You'll be ruined for other podcasts thinking they all are of this caliber.  
If you have been jaded by the noise of podcasters out there, this will give you hope that quality podcasts still exist.

😊 Here are some highlights I shared on Twitter, if you want to get a sense of why this episode is worth the listen.


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT