The Humanist Dilemma: Does Avoiding People I Don’t Want to Befriend Make Me a Bad Person?

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Feeling Unfriendly: Sometimes I make the acquaintance of people I can tell want to become friends but they seem so needy I avoid getting involved with them. Right now I’m thinking of a man I encounter regularly at the swim club we both belong to. He was alone forever (he must be about sixty), married briefly, and then divorced. Now he hovers around women, married (like me) and not, young and old, asking us to dance at club events, complaining about how lonely he is, and trying to play on soft hearts.

Frankly, he gives me (and, I suspect, not just me) the creeps. Although I see other women graciously spending a few minutes with him on the dance floor and I admire them for it, I don’t want to get that close even for a moment. But it’s not just him. I’m like this with people I don’t know that well who start to open up to me about their challenges. I’m not this way with people I am already friends with, only with those I have no prior relationship with beyond slight acquaintance. I find myself thinking about what happens when you feed stray cats.

Am I hopelessly heartless? Can I still call myself a humanist?

–Not Feeling Guilty Enough To Be Nicer


Dear Guilty,

I don’t think there’s anything in the (nonexistent) humanist handbook that says you must respond with boundless generosity to every unfortunate person you encounter. Although there’s certainly painful truth in the song “Easy to Be Hard” from the musical Hair (“Do you only care about the bleeding crowd, how about a needing friend?”), and we’d all do well to analyze how often we turn away when we could be offering a helping hand or kind word, we can’t do that for everyone who comes our way, nor should we beat ourselves up about it.

Regarding the man at your swim club, if you did engage with him you might discover that you actually enjoy his company, or that you have friends you could introduce him to, or that you were wrong about thinking he was creepy. Then again, he could prove to be intolerable and you may even find yourself looking for a new pool.

Although some people are perfectly suited to take care of the lost souls of the world—and more power to them!—most of us don’t have the time or energy to spend on people we don’t even want to be around. And very often there are reasons why such people are in these unfortunate situations in the first place. Chances are they consistently alienate those close to them, or try to take a mile from generous people who give them an inch. And you have to be careful not to take on unwanted responsibility. Do you know the Dr. Seuss story of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose? He allowed so many creatures to take shelter in his antlers, eventually he couldn’t run as the hunters approached. Lucky for him, he was able to shed his antlers, but that means of unloading a burden isn’t available for humans.

You yourself made the critical distinction that you only feel this way with people who aren’t already your friends. That’s key. Of course you should try to help friends in need, whether what they’ve lost is emotional or material, and even if that puts more weight on you than you might like (temporarily, and within reason—there are limits, even for friends and family).

Another critical distinction is whether the relationship could conceivably ever be reciprocal. Would any of these people be likely to help you if you were in need (and would you be willing to accept help from them?), or are they just looking for what you can do for them? It’s difficult to know the answer if these are just passing acquaintances, but it goes back to the point about how people get in this situation in the first place: people who take but never give often end up alone.

Some people love to care for stray cats, some don’t. Some truly enjoy helping others, the needier the better, with no reciprocity. Some are really warm and energetic people who love being able to help and give of themselves; some are social workers and psychologists and community service workers who help others for a living. If you’re not one of them, don’t feel that as a humanist, or just as a good person, you must pretend you are. Always be kind and polite, but also shield yourself from entanglements you can’t or don’t welcome.