“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.