The story of the ant and the grasshopper is a timeless tale. Mentioned in Proverbs of the Bible and in Aesop’s fables, the gist of the story is the ant toils away putting up grain for safe-keeping in anticipation of winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is foolish for wasting the day away. But the ant ignores his taunts as the grasshopper continues to have fun.
Soon, winter comes and the grasshopper worries because he’s cold and hungry and hasn’t prepared at all. But then he thinks of the ant and decides he’ll just hit him up to take care of them both. The ant is smart though. He saves himself a lot of trouble by telling the grasshopper to get a clue. Why? Because the only way the grasshopper will ever learn to be independent is if people stop coddling him.
“Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest.”Proverbs 6:6-8
Many people are raised to be self-reliant, to have respect for themselves and others, and they would never consider taking advantage of anyone, muchless their parents or close loved ones. Sadly, we are dysfunctional people in varying degrees, often as a direct result of how much a person is able to get away with (boundaries).
A freeloader is a person who takes advantage of your generosity without ever giving anything in return. A conman does the same thing but using lies. They cheat or trick you by first gaining your trust, then persuading you to believe a sob story, so you feel sorry enough to rescue them. There’s a fine line between these character flaws. Often the two overlap.
I personally lived through ongoing experiences with at least three such people. I’ve been on all sides of the situation: an observer, the benefactor of someone’s con, as well as, the mark. So, I’m pretty familiar with how it works.
While moochers may be selfish and lazy, they also seem to have a chip on their shoulders. Some horribly unfair thing(s) happened to them that they like to complain about as if no one else in the history of ever has had to go through stuff. They believe their struggles have made them special. They may not admit it but the grasshopper’s identity is wrapped up in entitlement.
People rip people off when they feel like they’re owed something, as if they’ve been slighted. They’re trying to even the score. Some, also get a thrill from duping others. They tend to be jealous of siblings too and will use them, if they think they can get away with it. They may believe their siblings had a better, easier life.
Because of their perceived hardships (whether real or imagined), they feel as though people owe them. They think they deserve better. Maybe they were abandoned, neglected, their parents didn’t love them enough, they had to grow up too fast, they were poor, they inherited a debilitating condition like addiction or depression, or maybe it’s something else entirely. It may even be true that their lives were not easy but it’s still no excuse for leeching off everyone else.
Having said that, as Christians, we’re called to feel compassion towards others, even if they are trying to rip people off. Presumably, they’re in pain, hurting, and taking that out on the people closest to them. This brings us to the second piece of the puzzle: for every con, there’s someone who gives in to their manipulations. The person who falls for the con is the enabler.
When I owe money to someone, I immediately look at my incoming check as belonging to whoever I owe. It’s not my money anymore, because I already spent it when it was loaned to me. But that’s not the way of the grasshopper. Instead, what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs too. I personally find it very hard to relate to that mentality.
It occurred to me years ago, when forced to deal with a narcissistic conman in my family, I had to change my perspective. Up until then, I’d been overlooking their scams, empathizing with their plight, then eventually becoming bitter and resentful when I realized they weren’t interested in changing. They did not want to get well and be better and this was frustrating. I decided in order to seek peace, I needed to show this person grace, despite the trouble they caused everyone else. This is what God does for us all the time.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22-23
The only way I could soften my heart, to feel compassion towards them, was to imagine they were disabled, not in the usual sense, but like a little baby. Considering they seemed unable (actually unwilling) to do the same things others in similar situations did, this visualization made perfect sense to me.
I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing it for my own peace of mind. It’s much easier to show Christian love to someone, if you can forgive them, even if that means you have to imagine them in the role they’ve assumed, as a giant toddler, completely dependent on everyone around them.
It must sound like I’m condoning their unacceptable behavior but I’m not treating them like a baby. I’m not celebrating every time they make a potty, though sometimes it feels like they expect that. No, I’m changing my attitude, my perspective, re-framing my viewpoint. My response is otherwise the same. I’m just not stressing over it anymore.
Now, obviously these folks are almost always capable of doing for themselves. They just won’t, because they don’t have to. The enabler has given them a way out of accepting responsibility for their own choices and the conman sees this escape hatch as a sort of right they’ve somehow earned by being so disadvantaged by the unfairness of life.
Of course, we should help our family and friends when they are truly in need but there’s a big difference between an unavoidable hardship and the frequent struggles of a chronic, entitled freeloader. Everyone gets behind the curve and wishes they could do better sometimes but the grasshopper thinks they’re doing more than enough already.
We must set boundaries to limit the family grasshopper. We may even have to cut ties completely. It is only by refusing to enable the otherwise capable people in our lives, that we can empower them to do for themselves, to live well and happily ever after. It is the loving thing to do.
What does enabling do? It disables the other person. The enabler cripples the conman by providing a crutch to a person who can walk, similar to someone in space whose muscles atrophy from lack of use. It’s sad to say but in essence, the person being conned, gives in to the conman and the unintentional consequence hurts everyone in the long run. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’ve since learned: enablers disable people.
How to tell the difference between helping and enabling:
Helping is doing something for someone truly incapable of doing for themselves.
Example: A single mom is in an accident with a drunk driver and is put in the hospital. Insurance pays most of her expenses, credit cards will cover some utilities, and she has enough in savings for rent but needs help with her heating bill. She’s called the power company and they’re willing to let her pay half now, half next month.
Enabling is doing things for someone who could be and should be doing those things for themselves.
Example: Someone in their thirties who regularly needs rescuing or “help” paying bills when they should’ve learned by now to start saving an emergency fund or build up credit or make better decisions to avoid costly mistakes, needs you to drop everything and come bail him out of jail now. He’s been picked up driving drunk with an expired license and has unpaid warrants.
Notice in the first example, the person needing help has done everything they can to first help themselves, before resorting to asking others. But the grasshopper in the second example, is never prepared. They’ve let things lapse before they even come up on a true emergency. They want you to handle the majority of the risk because their money has gone to cover their wants, rather than their needs. They refuse to “go without” in order to provide and prepare for themselves.
Imagine the worst that can happen without your help. In the first case scenario, the mom who’s done her best may end up getting her power turned off which could be a real issue. Pipes could freeze and burst, damaging her home, leaving her and her kids without. In the second example, if you do nothing, you can go back to bed and not leave your children home alone late at night to sit in a bail-bondsman’s office for hours on end filling out paperwork. If the conman stays in lock down, he can pay off his fines with time served and may even learn from his mistakes.
When the rescue operation is a recurring problem on the regular (yearly, monthly, or more often), then enabling creates a pattern where the conman can continue comfortably with the same behavior. There’s no need to learn a lesson from their mistakes. Enablers thus instill ongoing bad habits as if it’s acceptable.
Some people get into an enabling routine and almost relish being useful and able to “help” their freeloaders. They refuse to acknowledge the truth. For me, I wanted to make sure I’d done everything possible before admitting the reality of my situation. Similar to battered wife syndrome, the enabler may even defend their conman, claiming they “can’t help it”. When this is the case, others observing the scene feel awkward and sad for them both.
First step is to recognize the problem and admit if you’re an enabler. Second, work to remedy the problem.
Are you an enabler?
1. Have you repeatedly “loaned” money expecting to never receive it back? Do they “forget” they owe you?
2. Have you financially supported a dream, get-rich-quick scheme, or investment that never seems to pan out? More than once?
3. Have you had to do favors for someone who is never available to reciprocate and contribute to helping you in return with anything you may need help with? Do they only call when they need or want something?
4. Have you had to pay bills for someone who should’ve been able to pay their own bills? (Often, freeloaders don’t hold down traditional jobs for regular pay but are self-employed, contract labor, temporary workers, part-timers, pursuing their passions, etc. and rely on others to take up their slack.)
5. Have you felt pressured or guilted into helping someone financially in order to keep the peace with them? Do you get the impression they’re happy and thankful only as long as you’re financially supportive?
6. Have you bailed them out of jail? Have you paid their legal fees? More than once?
7. Have you had to walk on eggshells around them, otherwise feared suffering their wrath? Have you noticed if your freeloader seems angry, highly offended, displays increased profanity or violence, especially when confronted?
8. Have you ever helped them out only to find they’re being irresponsible: over-sleeping, going out partying, spending money on luxury items even nicer than you have?
9. Have you wondered how they can afford to eat fast food everyday, adopt animals or take in strays, buy expensive things, smoke, gamble, travel, etc. when they can’t seem to make rent, their car payment, or phone bill without your help?
10. Have you had to lie in conversations or cover for them when the subject of helping this person comes up?
11. Have you had a hard time getting a straight answer or caught them being dishonest? Do their stories seem suspicious? Do they turn down advice, insisting money is the only solution?
12. Have you ever co-signed for them? Has your credit score been impacted by “helping” them?
13. Have they shown disregard for your property: spilling, burning, wrecking, or destroying your home, furniture, clothing, car, etc.? Do they assume free command over your belongings?
14. Have they given you “gifts” they’ve already opened and used, or that they use right after you open? Do they strategically only give things when they want to get something out of it?
If you answered yes, you’re probably enabling another adult to avoid their responsibilities.
How can we put an end to this harmful enabling?
- PRAY. Mainly, we want to pray to see a change in ourselves. We need to pray for our enemies and those who would take advantage of our kindness. Pray with those who support our decision to be healthy.
- STOP. We must stop giving in to the demands. Create healthy boundaries. Don’t engage. Seek peace, first and foremost.
- LOVE. We are not alone in this. We need to treasure those who’ve been hurt by our enabling: siblings, spouses, friends and family who’ve had to watch helplessly as we were exploited. We need to lean on wise counsel.
- TIME. It won’t be easy and it will take some time but eventually we can take back our lives while helping our freeloader become a self-reliant, functional adult.
- DISTANCE: Sometimes the best thing to do is put some distance between ant and grasshopper, especially if the grasshopper is hostile or dangerous.