Trying to Understand You

shoesIn reading Luke this week, I find Jesus’ missing a bigger issue.

Yeah, I know, what chutzpah!

Jesus tells us on the one hand to be humble lest we be embarrassed by being taken down a peg or two if someone more illustrious shows up. And then he pretty much trashes that whole idea, but telling us that, we should avoid the whole patron/client thing of his time, and be really radical and invite only the poor, the forgotten, and the rejected of society to our banquets. God will repay us for that–we repay each other with the former.

Jesus says that we do this because “they can’t repay the debt”–the poor. And so, I assume that means that our largess in giving this big food binge is truly a giving.

Ask anyone who gives of their time at any sort of aid organization. They will tell you that they “receive much more than they give”. This always seems a problem from my point of view. If I am getting more than I give, then I’m getting my debt repaid quite well aren’t I? And it doesn’t matter whether I am getting repaid by all those who see me and think I’m something else for being so giving, or whether I’m getting my reward from God. I’m “buying” something in either case, am I not?

I work at a food pantry once a week for a couple of hours. I work in the back with the food. I notice that when I leave the facility, those who have come there to get food tend to not want to engage with me. They don’t look my way, they often don’t respond to a hello. I don’t engage with them inside the facility because I don’t do “that part”. I know there is a lot of filling out of forms and questions.  I’m sure it’s not pleasant to be questioned like this, all to obtain a few bags of groceries once a month.

The point is, I’m always a bit shocked at this. I’m the benefactor come to help, aren’t I? What’s not to like?

Now, please understand I am not there for that, but I do admit it surprises one when people are sullen, look away, and aren’t beaming with happiness. After all, we are all beaming, smiling, and admiring each other in the back for our willingness to extend a helping hand. Oh, yeah, that’s that “I get more than I give” thing isn’t it? We feed off admiring each other for our goodness. Even the average “random act of kindness” involves SOMEBODY seeing what you did.

And that all just bothers me a lot. I don’t feel that I should take away more than I gave, or even break even.

And I realized that there is really no way around this dilemma, for there are precious few circumstances where one can give meaningfully and be totally anonymous too.

But there is one way we dive deeply into the issue.

And that is to try to immerse ourselves in what it must be like to be the one who “cannot repay the debt.”

Such a journey is fraught with danger. One of the worst things any of us can do is to think or say, “I know how you feel.” The reality is that we can’t. Even when we have “been there, done that” we can’t truly know how anyone else feels in the same circumstances since they come with their own sets of experiences and personality skills that are always going to be different from ours.

But we can try to put ourselves in their shoes. Think of any time when you were utterly in someone else’s hands or worse, you were simply in the hands of “facts” that you couldn’t know yet. Anyone who has waited for the week to transpire to learn the results of a medical test starts to see my point. When did you feel helpless? When you had no control of your immediate future?

Letting those feelings wash over you I suspect gives you a view of at least how it feels to be one of those who stands in long lines to receive something called “free.” Free food, medical care, housing, clothes. A whole statement comes in the bag of food. You are presumed to be lazy, incompetent, a failure in life, or some combination. That may be, and usually is, far, far from the truth. You have made poor decisions probably, but so have all of us. Most of us have had the family safety net to ensure that we didn’t have to go public with our limitations.

When I see a group of men standing around talking as I leave the pantry, I still smile and say hello, but I don’t seek a response now. I don’t wonder why they don’t answer. I just try to imagine how painful it is to need like this. And I can appreciate their desire to be anonymous in their need.

It may not be walking a mile in another’s shoes, for that is not really a possibility, but it is growing in empathy, and it cuts against judging. Those are both good things. It’s the best I can come up with so far.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. athornamongmany
    Sep 01, 2013 @ 12:07:16

    Sherry, beautiful reflection — especially your description of the empathetic transition of wondering why no eye contact to — trying to experience the pain of a fellow human being.

    “They can’t repay the debt” — having been there and still there to a degree, is akin to learned helplessness. Coming from that place, you feel like you don’t deserve to make eye contact with the one that is “getting more out of it than they give” and “I know how you feel” reminds me of my semi-dark post that began with memories of the loss of our George last Spring. Knowing the feeling someone experiences when they have a loss, are homeless, angry, etc. is an impossible fete.

    Teaching children that have the exceptionality of some brand of emotional disturbance, we bring empathy alive every day — sometimes many times in one day. These beautiful little souls are often so wounded, that empathy seems to have taken a long vacation — if it ever lived in their hearts, in the first place.

    “Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply–(http://www.edutopia.org/blog/empathy-back-to-school-supply-homa-tavangar ) it’s a good article, and the art work at the top of the article, is a great visual reminder that I have placed on my classroom wall as a perpetual reminder of the importance of empathy. Have a great Sunday and Labor Day holiday! Love to you, Jerry

    Reply

  2. Tim
    Sep 08, 2013 @ 07:20:38

    Sherry, what a fine job you’ve done in trying to get your arms around the whole conflicted mess of ministry. And it is a messy business fraught with frustration and peculiarities that we never quite sort out. Particularly in outreach to the poor and hungry, there often seems to be clear divisional lines between those who receive help and those who try to help.

    On the receiving end, there is the matter of feelings of unworthiness–the exact opposite of the “entitlement” that we often hear applied to people who rely on social assistance. Many of these folks have grown up being told they’ll never “be anything” or can never “be anything.” They hear it in school, where lack of family resources has withheld many fundamental opportunities from them. (Reading is a big part of this. The child who grows up in a home without books and magazines, whose parents lack adequate education or parenting skills, or those whose parents can’t afford to purchase eyeglasses for her/him, etc., struggles to catch up with better advantaged classmates.) These feelings of inferiority take root very early and are extremely difficult for many to overcome. They wind up fixed in their psyches for life, in many cases, and follow them throughout their adulthood, as they’re consistently turned down for jobs, housing, and other opportunities because they’re “under-qualified” and “unacceptable”.

    Then there are the family and community dynamics, which is too big a problem to unpack here. Suffice to say that these issues are hardly confined to the very poor, though. Family/social dysfunction often fells young people in every class. Last night I saw a play–based on an actual case–about a middle-class white father who caged his 12-year-old son in a dog crate, after repeated attempts to run away from home. The father and stepmother told the school district they’d decided to home-school the child–who was borderline brilliant–and on the one occasion when a social worker came to check on him, a front was put up to suggest everything was okay. Meanwhile, the son slowly starved himself to death and the whole tragedy wasn’t discovered until two years after he was dead, when they unearthed his remains in a shallow backyard grave.

    Thankfully, not all cases are this atrocious. But you get my drift. By the time the folks you serve show up, they’ve been conditioned to believe that they’re less than who they are. And I would guess that these feelings figure prominently in their response to you. You’re the “nice lady” and they’re the “nobodies”. Their response may project sullen hostility and even a sort of arrogance. Yet they reveal a deeply imbedded sense of inferiority that dogs them every moment of every day.

    And that kicks in a cycle of sorts, because the absence of recognition from those we help fosters feelings of inadequacy in us, the helpers. We come to these jobs hoping to “break through” the poverty wall and (selfishly, perhaps, but usually not) to be appreciated for our efforts. When neither of these things happen, we feel like we, too, have failed. While many of the poor have been told, and come to believe, that they’ll “never be anything,” we wring our hands and come to believe, “there’s nothing we can do.”

    What helps me is to always remember that working in situations like the one you describe is that it’s really not about the helped or the helpers. It’s about the actual help. In your case, it’s all about the food. You will never be present when the gratitude is expressed, because it happens where these folks live, not at the food bank. So I do my best to look beyond the immediate moment and imagine the children who’ll be thrilled to have a warm dinner, or the mother whose anxiety about feeding her young is momentarily lifted as she stores the groceries, and so on. The food and supplies you touch are what touches them. And every gift you provide carries with it the potential to change lives. You’ll never see it. But it’s there and it’s happening.

    God bless you, dear friend, for all you continue to do. Remember that Jesus said we shouldn’t worry about being seen when we give our offerings; the Creator sees and rewards us openly. Today’s blessings in your life and home are there because of the blessings you provided to strangers in the past!

    Much love,
    Tim

    Reply

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