Monday, April 04, 2016

you can't always say something to make it all better

First, a disclaimer: both the book and the article I'm going to link to in this post got me riled up in such a way that they led to me writing this, but I don't necessarily consider this post a critique of either one. Also, I have no idea why the fonts got so nutty after I quoted the other article. Right now I'm trying to hold myself to getting my thoughts out there without too much worry about formatting, so that's why I'm not fixing it :)

A few Saturdays ago, I was reading the wonderful book Tattoos on the Heart  by Father Gregory Boyle, and as I was reading, I found myself getting more and more agitated about a situation that happened in my life/family/ministry/community. Unfortunately, because in some ways it's ongoing and in other ways to describe it would be to call people out, I can't go into the details. Broadly, I can say that it involved a family (not mine), a transgression, and my desire to offer forgiveness.

So I'm reading the book, and it has all kinds of profound anecdotes about conversations that have happened between Father G and the homies with whom he works, and I start imagining that I'm going to go to the home of this family and I'm going to extend myself and we're going to have this profound conversation and the youth who committed the transgression is going to see my boundless compassion and I'm going to make an everlasting impact on his life. (Yeah, I can see that when I write it out that my thoughts are straight up delusional.) And then someone rings the doorbell and asks me for a ride to precisely the neighborhood where this family lives and it feels like a sign from God that I should go talk to the family.

We get there and I go to their apartment and things start going really differently. First, the youth in question is not home. Second, I realize as I launch in to referencing "the incident" that there is not one flicker of recognition on his mom's face. Then, I realize that I am probably in the role of informing her what happened, and she doesn't even know. And finally, she denies that he had any role in the incident whatsoever, which then leads me to doubting myself and the information I've received.

Long story short, it went NOTHING like any of the profound conversations in the book.

Then this morning, I read this post, which is lovely and also profound and I'm not criticizing at all, but when I read this passage, I found myself wanting to scream:

This past week while volunteering I met a man who told me he’s only been on the streets for a short while. His 12 year old son was killed in a car accident the prior year and the grief and magnitude of the situation literally ripped his family apart. He lost his job, home, wife…and is now on the streets. When he walked in to the kitchen I asked him how his day was and he said “it’s been a really bad day, unfortunately”. I told him we were going to change that, led him to his seat for lunch, and told my friend Kristy to take extra good care of him. He was served a nutritious meal of top sirloin with onions and mushrooms, asparagus, butternut squash, baked potato and dessert. As he was leaving, I asked him if his day had improved… with his eyes brimming with tears, he said “You absolutely do not know how happy this made me. Thank you.”
We went on to chat and his attitude and outlook had changed dramatically from when he first walked in the door. Food, and the chance to be nourished with a hot meal, can change lives. It truly can.
Now, I absolutely believe that this story is true. I absolutely believe that the man said what he said, and that it had an amazing impact on the author. At the same time, what I want to say is that even if the man's day had not become better, even if he was entirely ungrateful for the meal he had received, or if not ungrateful was just sort of ambivalent about it or even unresponsive, the act of serving the meal would still have been worthwhile.
And so I worry that stories like this one, and like the ones in the book, are setting us up to expect something from the recipients of our compassion. And when we don't receive that something (gratitude; awe; profound conversation; lives changed), we think our act wasn't worthy, and then maybe we won't do it anymore.
And at the same time, if I'm really honest, do you know how much EGO I had tied up in the hypothetical conversation I thought I might be having on that Saturday a few days ago? I was thinking that I was going to say these amazing things to change the hearts of everyone in the family. I was going to make a profound impact. I was going to have just the right words to say to elicit the hoped-for response.
Well, guess what? I didn't. I didn't get any of that. And so I left feeling like kind of a big dummy. I left feeling foolish and like I had just told a secret that wasn't meant to be shared yet and utterly confused by it all. And I may even have done more harm than good, truthfully (I actually don't think so in this particular setting, but it was possible.)
We have to try, yes. We have to reach out and do the right thing, yes. But we can't always say something to make it all better. When people are sad, bereft, in denial, lying to you and others, and in any other number of varied circumstances, your words might not have an impact. And you have to live with it. You can try your best, and sometimes your best doesn't have an effect. What happens then is that you become humble, and you learn, and you reflect. And all of those things are good to do. 
And next time something similar happens, I hope you go right back out there to try again. I have to, it's part of my job. And we all should, as part of our job of being human. But maybe we shouldn't set ourselves up to think we're going to get a giant pat on the back for everything we do. There's something about US wrapped up in that kind of expectation. Other people are entitled to their own responses, even if we don't like them. We have to keep being ourselves, and keep putting ourselves out there, but not trying to bend others' reactions to our will, because then we're not doing anyone, ourselves or the other people, any favors.


Martha Spong said...

Yes, to all of that.

spookyrach said...

Those kinds of 'life-changer' anecdotes make me sort of twitchy. I enjoyed your take on it. Except your bit about the ego being overly involved. That sort of made my toes ache. ;)

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Beautiful, honest post. Ego is such a hard thing to tame. So glad I read this.

Sarah Jones said...

For whatever reason, I can't figure out how to reply to each of you individually! (Can you do that in Blogger? I forget so much!!!)

But thanks to each of you for visiting the blog and I'm so, so, so glad this post resonated with you!!!