Sunday, January 24, 2010

reaching through despair

I’m going to a nearby high school every month, setting up a table in the front hall with information about the drawbacks of military service which recruiters tend to gloss over and about other possible ways of earning money, traveling, learning skills and serving America. Two months ago I was greatly encouraged when a young woman told me that she’d decided not to join the National Guard once she learned that Guard members could be sent into combat overseas, so she was looking into civilian service options and encouraging her friends to do likewise. My last visit was less encouraging. A young man stopped by and said he was joining the military. I asked why, as I usually do. Some students tell me they’re eager to protect their country from its enemies; some say military service is a family tradition; many say the sign-up bonuses are good and where else can they earn that kind of money? This one said that he was in all kinds of trouble--alcohol, drugs, knife fights--and fighting seemed to be the only thing he was good at. He wasn’t worried about dying--he’d be a hero then, and his life stunk in any case. He was aware of counseling services, work and service opportunities, all that stuff; it just didn’t interest him. What was the point?
I’ve heard other young people give similar reasons for enlisting. I’ve heard a similar sense of the worthlessness of life from visitors and friends (some from apparently good families and privileged backgrounds) who have decided that the only way to keep going is to keep themselves distracted, with alcohol or drugs or virtual reality or... And I don’t know what to say to them. I try to listen to them while they’re present, try to pray for them afterward. I know that’s inadequate. Sometimes I think that the problem is that I can’t imagine being in their position, can’t imagine finding life meaningless, and so can’t make a case for meaning in language that would reach them where they are.

And then I get brought up short by my own times of disillusionment and discouragement. I’ve been in one of those lately.
Part of it has to do with externals. I keep thinking I’ve cured myself of having unrealistic political hopes, but my dismay at the increased military intervention in Afghanistan, at the ugly fight over health care reform, at the Supreme Court ruling lifting what restrictions we had on corporate money in political campaigns, shows that I still haven’t learned.
Part of it is disappointment with myself. I am doing work I chose, work I value, but often I don’t do it well. I work hard, but when there’s a problem I try not to see it,and once I can’t help seeing it I grab at a solution, any solution, rather than stepping back and looking at the root of the problem. This generally means that the problem continues and wastes a lot of time and energy, mine and others’. It also means that I lurch back and forth between excessive confidence and excessive lack of confidence. In the latter times I also tend to bury myself in distractions (novels, Facebook, busywork...), and to daydream about doing something spectacular that would somehow compensate for the daily failures. At those points I can very nearly imagine being where the desperate people I meet seem to be.

And yet I don’t conclude that life stinks. There are things that make that easier for me: I live in a beautiful place where walking in the woods and fields, listening to the streams, is a great comfort, when it isn’t too cold, and I live with people I love. And even in the times when I don’t seem able to see and be glad in these things, on some level I continue to remember God--to remember that there is life and light and meaning that can’t be destroyed by human carelessness or malice, either my own or other people’s; and also that that light, life and meaning can be brought more fully into the human world by people who attend to it. Knowing this, I can’t despair.
But if I really knew this, knew it all the way down, I wouldn’t waste energy in hiding my faults from myself and other people, or in resenting people who disappoint me, or in refusing to forgive myself for disappointing others. On some level I still figure that I’m the center of the universe. From this position I can’t bear to be wrong, so I ignore what I know about my shortcomings and demand the approval of other people to reassure myself. From this position I try to ‘keep score’: am I doing enough good, in view of all the good things that have been given to me? Are other people doing enough for me, in view of all the good things I’m trying to do? From this position guilt, resentment, desperation come easily, and prayer, gratitude, love, understanding, do not.

Perhaps if I could learn wholeheartedness; could consistently step out of the center of my imaginary world and live in God’s world; could see clearly what is around me, respond to it faithfully, and trust God both to show me what I can do and to care for the things that are beyond me; then I could help other people to make the same transition. Perhaps by speaking about it (though not in religious language at the school). Perhaps just by virtue of living from the deeper level, the place beyond words where we all are one. In the meantime, I try to remember them both in the dark times and in the times of grace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

whose burdens do we bear?

“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” –Galatians 6:2
“Every man shall bear his own burden.” --Galatians 6:5

These two teachings have been on my mind lately for several reasons. St. Francis Farm is holding its annual review/discernment/planning session, looking at the work we are called to do and the things that sustain this work. I just filled out my annual Medicaid application. And the response to my first blog post, particularly this comment, brings up the old liberal/conservative argument about personal responsibility.
This argument can become very polarized when it’s theoretical. In my daily life and work I see truth in both sides of the argument, in the command of Galatians 6:2 and that of Galatians 6:5, and I am trying to find a balance between them.
I tried to write about this whole question in one post and it became hopelessly unwieldy, so I’m splitting it in two. This post looks at how we bear the burdens of our own and others’ physical/material needs. The other kind will go in the next post.

I see the damage that’s done when people are divided into helpers and helpless, when wealthier people come to Help the Poor, feel good about themselves and reinforce their feeling that they deserve to have more, and less wealthy people take what they can get at the expense of their dignity and agency. This does harm to everyone involved.
I see the damage that’s done when people insist that they are not their brothers’ keepers and that they are entitled to whatever they can get. This leaves some people glutted with things that give them ever less satisfaction, and others going without what they need. This does harm to everyone involved.
I see the good that is done when we willingly bear each other’s burdens. We all need help, we’re all capable of helping in one way or another, and we all need to be willing to give and to receive. The children whom the local school sends to us in the summer explore in the woods and fields with us and take vegetables home to their families; they also help us in the garden. We set it up this way because we needed their help if we were going to take time to explore with them and still grow enough for ourselves and for sharing with neighbors and the soup kitchen. When we hear them talking to their parents it’s plain that they take pride in being needed, in having something to give. We’ve received gifts of time, know-how, useful items and money from people who plainly were getting by with very little. It’s humbling to accept these gifts. It also makes it possible for us to give. And we find that the more privileged people who come to us meaning to help also hunger for wholesome food, people to listen to them, quiet time for prayer, work that can be shared and that has tangible results.
We all also burden each other in ways that are less voluntary. I can’t help being aware of this when I fill out my Medicaid forms. Taxpayers aren’t being asked to donate so I can have health insurance; that money is demanded from them. I can see why some people object to taxation for social programs as forcibly burdening some people in order to support others. But our economic system does this as well as our political system. Many of the people who grow our food and manufacture our clothes and our electronics aren’t doing it because they care about us, or because they find the work fulfilling. They’re doing it because they need to live and they can’t find better employment. Many of then aren’t working in conditions that I’d work in or wish on anyone else. This isn’t necessarily the result of their choices. I’ve heard experts talk earnestly about helping people to rise out of poverty by teaching them ‘middle-class skills and values’ so that they could get office jobs. I asked who would provide for our physical needs once we were all office workers. They said there would always be plenty of people who failed to rise and weren’t willing to discuss the rightness of a system which requires some people to stay ‘down’. I don’t know what to do about this except to reduce my demands and do more of my own work—to bear more of my own burden—and to remain mindful of the people who are still forced to bear part of my burden for me.
And sometimes I am less able to bear others’ burdens than I wish to be. One of the hardest parts of our work at the farm is saying no to people who ask us for help. Sometimes we say no because the request doesn’t seem to make sense or because it seems that they are in difficulties of their own making and keep choosing things that make it difficult to help them. Sometimes the need is very clear but we still don’t feel able to meet it. In our first year at the farm, when we were struggling financially, a family called and asked us to finance a new well and septic system for them. We couldn’t. We’ve been asked to provide hospitality to people who were dealing with active addictions, or who had severe mental health issues and lacked an outside support. We didn’t have the training for it and didn’t feel we had the emotional energy either.
Sometimes the needs around and within me exceed the apparent strength around and within me, and I am discouraged. Then I have to remember that we are all in God’s hands, and I am not God. It isn’t up to me to figure out how to make everything come out right; only to do my part as faithfully as I can, and then let the rest go and give thanks for all the good gifts that come to us each day, beyond all deserving.