Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Living With Our Limits

The prompt for this month's Spirit of the Poor synchroblog was "Affirm the Humanity."  As long as I can remember I have been painfully aware of the danger of defining other people as less-than-human.  I wrote about that in a recent post.  But for me there are other major obstacles to treating other people as I want to be treated, to seeing them clearly and loving them honestly. So today I find myself wondering: what would it mean for me to accept myself as fully and truly human, and how might that change my ability to see and love my neighbors as they are?
Humanity includes creatureliness, limitation.  The consumer culture isn't comfortable with that.  There is constant pressure to Maximize Your Potential and Be All You Can Be.   As a society we keep developing new technologies largely because we can; concerns about the damage done by the ever-mouting wave of unintended consequences are often dismissed in the name of 'progress', which we seem to assume is good or necessary.  As a result our power, en masse, increases, at the same time that our individual competence and the resilience of our ecosystems and communities decreases.  We reach beyond our limits, try to be more than human, and we end up failing to be fully human.
A similar message seems to warp our intimate relationships.  A disturbing number of young people have told me that they became sexually active just, like, to show that they could--that they didn't have some horrible flaw like prudishness or homosexuality or lack of sex appeal. [N.B. Just in case it isn't obvious--these don't strike me as flaws, horrible or otherwise; this is just what I've heard them saying.]   This hurry to prove something sometimes seems to crowd out desire, trust and intimacy as well as self-knowledge and self-control.
As a teenager I struggled most with messages about career Potential. People I loved and respected told me that as an intelligent woman I had a moral obligation to get an impressive set of educational credentials and a high-powered job--both because I might be able to Make a Difference through my work, and because the very fact of my holding the position would help to prove that there was nothing wrong with women. I bought that message on some levels.  I resonated with the appeal to women's rights.  More selfishly, I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to be special.  But I had already caused a certain amount of misery for myself and other people by focusing on that wish for achievement, attention, approval.  And I knew that I could all too easily live in my mind, in a world of causes and abstractions, and lose sight of my immediate neighbors and of other people who were harmed by the effects of my consumption.  So instead I chose to farm and be present to my neighbors, to try to live as a committed and responsible member of a small place.  I thought I'd made my choice and gotten over that danger. I thought I'd learned what I needed to about humility and solidarity.  It took me a while to realize that all the important choices have to be made over and over again.
I still find myself doubting my choice, wondering if it was really just a cop-out, a way of avoiding having to test my ability to make a name for myself and succeed in a challenging world. That doubt can sap my energy and attention so that I am less available to my neighbors, but at least it's uncomfortable and obvious enough so that I notice it and deal; with it.
The other temptation is more subtle.  There is a very real and important line that can be difficult to see. On one side is paying attention to people, trying to see them clearly and compassionately, and offering help where it's appropriate as they try to grow in the ways God calls them.  On the other side is trying to Fix People--either so that I can demonstrate my goodness or so that I don't keep having to know that they are in pain.  When I insist on being able to Fix People I fail to acknowledge the extent of the challenges they face and the wounds they bear.  I also fail to acknowledge what they can do, are doing,  for themselves, and what only God can do for them, and so I become unable to offer what legitimate assistance might actually be mine to give.
Not only now in Lent but all through the year I am haunted by the image of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, coming back to his sleeping disciples and saying "Couldn't you watch with me even one hour?" I can picture all too clearly what some of them might have been thinking: No, how could I? Hide you, yes, fight for you, yes, but just watch and not be able to do anything to stop your hurting? How could I bear to do that? I can imagine this because of all the times when I have wanted to look away--too often, have looked away--from the suffering of a neighbor: a mother tired by and afraid for her troubled child, a child steeling himself to go home to a chaotic and unsafe situation, a person struggling with mental illness more incapacitating than anything I've yet experienced, a migrant worker in pain from needless injuries incurred in the process of growing our cheap food without adequate safeguards… I do not want to have to see.  I want to make their pain go away so that it does not hurt me.  If I can't do that I want to unknow it, to distract myself with daydreams or petty worries or a long list of projects and accomplishments. 
I need not to do that.  I need to stay, as I have been stayed with in the hardest times that I have yet encountered.  Stay, and see, and listen, and offer what I can, even if that is only attention, prayer, grief. I begin to believe that most of what I can legitimately give begins with the experience and the acceptance of my limitations.  We've had guests at our Catholic Worker say that it helped them to see that we were able to have a satisfying life without a lot of the stuff that TV tells us we need. Some of these were people who had come to the US in hopes of earning more for their families--there were those who came because they couldn't afford to feed their children, but also those who said they could have had something like what we had, but that they thought they owed their children More.  Less tangible limitations and broken places also seem to contain possible gifts. Since my struggles with anxiety, obsessions and compulsions I have sometimes been able to accompany other people with mental health issues in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.
I read somewhere, and I can't remember the source: Out of our brokenness make us a blessing.  I pray for that sometimes now.  I don't know how to do that, but God can. 


Newell Hendricks said...

Thank you so much for this thoughtful, rich piece. It speaks to me in so many ways. My daughter dropped out of College to intentionally chose a life outside the professional world. She now farms and teaches children to dance. She is the most amazing person I have ever known and I learn from her every time I talk with her. You wrote, " I begin to believe that most of what I can legitimately give begins with the experience and the acceptance of my limitations." That is a very profound thought and one that is hard to internalize. I thank you for it, and for all of the other wisdom in this post.

Emily Heitzman said...

This is so good, Joanne. I especially can relate to the idea of feeling I need to fix others - either because of my own ability to do so or my struggle to fully and truly see the pain someone is going through (which then brings me pain and possibly also guilt). It is so hard to let go of trying to fix and to see another as fully human, in all that he/she is and has experienced. I love your challenge, though:

"When I insist on being able to Fix People I fail to acknowledge the extent of the challenges they face and the wounds they bear. I also fail to acknowledge what they can do, are doing, for themselves, and what only God can do for them, and so I become unable to offer what legitimate assistance might actually be mine to give."

So powerful. Thank you!

David H. Finke said...

What a huge amount of wisdom you have packed in this one essay/testimony, Dear Friend! It deserves to be widely-read, pondered, and followed. I am convinced you are deeply in touch with the Christ-Spirit, the one who was teaching us both Simplicity and Grace. The choices you have made, are making, are at this moment changing the world.
You are not only politically/economically "counter-cultural," you are also spiritually Faithful. I say this not to compliment YOU, but to urge that all of us turn, as I believe you are doing, to The Source, the Good Shepherd who can guide us into All Truth, giving us the measure of what we can handle and embody, letting that Light shine through us out into a hurting world.
May God continue to bless you, and us through you. Praise GOD through whom All Blessings Flow!