Whenever we turn on the TV or radio, or look at our facebook, we risk being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of problems in the world, problems in our nation, problems in our cities. There are so many things to do, so many causes asking us to help, and we want so much to help, to make a difference. But where do we start? It’s simply endless! What can we do?
This is a really tough topic. Worse, I think it is one that polarizes us around a natural human division. It is a division that manifests in politics as the classical liberal/ conservative polarization about which I wrote in Vote for the Person Not the Party. But it’s a division that is not limited to politics. Rather I see it spilling over into social, family, and charitable settings.
I had breakfast the other day with a good friend who told me of a family debate about poverty. The structured, logical argument (I seem to remember a brother propounding) won the day, and everyone sat back, knowing it was over. But then another person at the table (for some reason I think it was his sister) said words to the effect, “That’s fine, but I don’t see how it helps the single mother I spoke to yesterday who is earning $7.50 an hour at McDonald’s and can’t afford to buy food for her kids.” With this emotional appeal the tables completely turned. The division between logic and feeling, between the rational and the emotional is one that runs deep, causing conflict within us individually and polarizing us as a community.
I first started thinking about writing this piece after having a conversation with my Dad, a retired orthopedic surgeon, who has recently been reading about the incidence and meaning of false positive results in medical tests. If, for example, the incidence in the tested population (e.g. test for prostate cancer when you’re over 60) is 5%, but the false positive rate is 20%, then of those testing positive, 80% do not have the condition. We can compound this with other statistical medical facts to suggest that the cost of our medical system is spiraling but causing as much suffering as it saves. This tweaked my logical and analytic antennae and I started thinking. I thought more after hearing a call for money from the performers at The Fox last night (a wonderful performance, by the way). After the curtain call and the ovation, the leads asked the audience for money to support research into HIV/Aids, and Breast Cancer. The logical, analytical side of me asked, Can we really bring suffering from these conditions to an end? What is the next cost in human suffering of false positives, the suffering caused by the treatments, and the false hope of treatments that ultimately fail?
But the emotional side of me saw suffering people and wanted to help. The emotional side of me remembered my own mother’s long, slow decline with cancer and the suffering it caused my father; remembered Beth’s family’s struggle with her mother’s Alzheimer’s; remembered Cherry’s long history with her husband’s and her own multiple sclerosis.
While reflecting on this today I was reminded of a wonderful interview my co-host Todd Schnick and I had on A New Business Mindset with Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Bill talked about the years leading up to opening the Food Bank. After serving in Vietnam with the Air Force he had come home, obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees, and studied counseling. Working in his church ministry, thinking of the rest of his life, he said:
“I’m running a community kitchen, feeding 400 people…still trying to counsel people in the afternoon thinking…after the soup kitchen, I’m going to be a therapist.
“So I would have families in on a sliding scale, mostly homeless and without any money. A young lady, 20 or 21, came in with two kids. She was homeless, on the streets, and the kids are bouncing off the walls in my office. She told me her situation, and I said, ‘Let me help: I can get you a hotel room for three nights…and some metro tokens. Let me get you some clothes and some tokens for food.’ I’m feeling so good about myself. I’m just feeling like I’m solving this person’s problem.
But the young lady looks across the desk and says, ‘Reverend Bill, this is insulting. You don’t think I know where all these stuff is out here? I live out on the street.’
“I said, ‘But I was just trying to make it a little easier.’ My ego is getting depressed a little bit.
The young lady looked across and said, ‘I just need somebody to be with me. I just need somebody to listen to me without judging.’
That was more important than two years of graduate school. In that moment, the greatest gift I could give her was my being.
Bill’s story brings me as close to answering the conundrum of “How can I help?” as I think I can get. The story makes me see that real charitable work, real compassion, is personal. It is about seeing someone suffering and being there for them as they are. It is about being present and listening and responding to them as a human being. I know from my own experience that I can either stop and give a homeless person money, or I can stop, look them in the eyes and, from a place of curiosity, talk to them. I remember John’s story at Covenant House, which I related in The Power of Unconditional Love: John reaffirmed that what matters most to the sufferer is not of the act of giving or withholding money, but of giving or withholding recognition of humanity, of love.
I know from my own experience that when I give of my humanity through curiosity, listening, and responding to real people, I am affected and I change. I become richer, deeper, bigger. I recognize in my experience that those suffering are not separate from me, and the doors to real compassion open up. I am affected in ways that do not happen when I write a check in my office.
None of this is to suggest we should refrain from financially supporting charities, or from asking for money for causes we care about. None of this is to pretend to answer the unanswerable question of whether logic or emotion should rule the day. But it is to suggest that the richer context in which each of us can examine our own question of charitable giving and how we can make a difference can be found at a personal level. It is to suggest that spending time as an equal with those we seek to help is the foundation for beginning to understand how we can help.
Sign up for the mailing list to receive my regular writings in your inbox and to learn more about the Pilgrimage. And click here if you would like to purchase a copy of my latest book, Up The Mountain, at Amazon.