Dear Carolyn: For the holidays this year, my mother was torn about her regular "gig" — volunteering at a local community center serving as a "soup kitchen." She has volunteered there for many years for the less fortunate.
My mother ultimately decided never to return to the soup kitchen. She said she saw many local residents partaking of the feast last year whom she knew were not poor. She was angry and resented her neighbors for doing something clearly unprincipled.
So my mother decided to forgo the good work — which clearly gave her pleasure year after year — because of the unethical acts of others. I see this as a dilemma: Should she have continued the volunteer work despite anger at her neighbors who are taking advantage of others' kindness?
Carolyn says: If you want an answer about your mother, then it's this: She should have done what was right for her. When the volunteer work stopped being meaningful to her, that was an appropriate time for a change.
Setting her anger aside and continuing the volunteer work would have been appropriate, too — as would quitting because someone wore a purple sweater to the dinner and she hates purple sweaters. Seriously. There are better and lesser angels involved for sure, but the prerogative was and remains fully hers.
If you want an answer about charity, then it's this: Beware of certainties about who is "not poor." It's a lot like believing you know what goes on in someone else's marriage. You may see a lot of information on display, and you may have a reasonable ability to put 2 and 2 together, but you don't know.
Plus, resentment of people for taking what is given — and specifically attaching harsh moral judgments to what is and isn't "deserved" — is, to my mind, a far bigger societal ill than the occasional misplaced handout. Is the risk that someone unworthy will take advantage really more serious, more worthy of preventive action, than the risk that someone in need won't get served? That's the calculation people make when they pull back on volunteering and reel in safety nets over fears of abuse — and it's not humanity's best side.
So your mom's shoulder-angel might whisper, "Honor the purpose of the day, even if others don't," or just go for it: "Maybe it's time to look beyond this one day to a cause that accomplishes more." But such advice is ultimately for ourselves.
A blonde at 80
Dear Carolyn: Years ago, my mom saw someone with long blond hair, and was in shock when the woman turned around to show a wrinkled face that did not belong with the hair. My mom told me to tell her when it was time for her to change her hair color from blond.
A few years ago, I told her it was time to move away from blond. However, my mom — now 80 — fights aging, has had a face peel, etc., and did not take it well. She has not changed her hair color.
I feel like I'm the only one who can tell her it's time (overdue really). Can you suggest a tactful approach?
Carolyn says: I'd rather be blunt: Even you can't tell her, because she doesn't want to hear it. Assuming she even needs to. You honored your promise. Now drop it.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.