compassion

Me and Mr. Jones: On Being Pulled Out of My Comfort Zone

I meet Mr. Jones at the public library. I am browsing the shelves, passing time until one of my students meets me for a tutoring session.

“Excuse me,” says a man, stepping into the aisle beside me “I’m so sorry, but I wondered if you could help me.”

“What do you need?” I ask.

“I’m trying to fill out a job application, but I can’t read and write very well. Do you think you could help me?”

“Yes,” I say. “I can do that.”

I follow him to a desk where he points to a paper job application and hands me a pen. I sit down and start quizzing him. “Name? Address? Position you’re applying for? Previous work experience?”

He stumbles over the address question. “Hmmm…I don’t think she will want me to use her address anymore,” he mutters to himself. “Let me think on that.”

As we work our way through the application, he has questions for me too. “What’s your name?” he asks. I tell him.

“Ms. Dunn, Ms. Dunn,” he repeats. Then, “You don’t seem like you’re afraid of me.”

“Why would I be afraid of you?”

“I don’t know. I’m a stranger, walking up to you in the library, asking for your help.”

“We’re in a public place,” I said. “You’ve been very respectful. I’m not afraid.”

He seems satisfied with that.

“Ms. Dunn, how old do you think I am?” he asks me.

I study his face for clues and find myself perplexed by the evidence. His hair is going white, but his skin is smooth and unwrinkled, the color of rich, dark chocolate. His teeth are white and straight. His clothes are old-fashioned, but meticulously clean.

“Maybe around fifty?” I hazard a guess.

“Would you believe that I am sixty years old?” he says. I tell him he looks much younger.

“I guess you think it’s kind of a pathetic. How does a man get to be 60 years old without knowing how to read and write?” he says.

“You never know what’s happened in someone else’s life to bring them to where they are today,” I tell him. “I try not to judge people too quickly.”

He says, “I wonder, Ms. Dunn, if you would teach me read and write.”

“I would love to do that,” I say.

***

A few days later, we meet at the library again. Today, there aren’t any tables free, so we pull two chairs up to a windowsill and sit in the afternoon sunlight.

I write the first 10 letters of the alphabet on an index card. We go over the sound that each letter makes.

A few minutes into our lesson, he stops me. “Ms. Dunn, I have to tell you something,” he says. “I want to be honest with you. The truth is, I’m actually homeless,” he says, watching my face.

“I thought you might be,” I admit.

“But you’re not worried about that?” he asks. “You’ve never asked me if I can pay you or anything like that.”

“I’m not worried about it,” I tell him.

His face lights up. “I was talking to God this morning,” he tells me. “And I told him, ‘God, I think maybe you let me meet Ms. Dunn for a reason.’ “

“I think maybe that’s true,” I say.

***

The next time I meet Mr. Jones, he is distracted. The library is being renovated and the only place we can find to sit is in the middle of the first floor lobby. People are walking in and out, and he has walked miles across town to get to me. He has diabetes, and I can tell that something is off with his blood sugar.

 

He was bright and alert when he arrived, but now that he’s sitting down and resting, the exertion and the lack of proper food are hitting him. He is trying to concentrate, but his eyes keep slipping closed, even as he talks to me.

We make our way through the rest of the alphabet, but he is out of it. I give him a down blanket, some oranges, and a pair of wool socks. We decide that next time we meet we will find a place with fewer distractions.

That night it storms and I lay in my bed listening the rain and praying that Mr. Jones is somewhere warm and dry.

***

A week later we meet again. This time, we read together. He sounds his way through the first few BOB books. We read about Peg and Ted and their pet pig and hen. He asks about my husband, something he does every time we speak, and he tells me he is sorry he was so out of it the last time we met. That he’d walked too far that day and his body was shutting down.

I bring a pack of sugar-free gum and a box of peanut butter crackers. We talk about the trees that are blooming now and the greenish yellow pollen that’s settled over everything. We talk about Korea and what’s up with Kim Jeong-Un anyway? We talk about how he became such a high-functioning illiterate by memorizing the way certain words looked the way you might learn the name of a painting. We make a plan to meet again next week.

***

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I walk a tightrope between trust and self-protection with every interaction. I don’t know if this man is telling me the truth or not, but I choose to believe that he is. Everyone has a story. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. For some people, those choices just come with more obvious consequences than others

I am not a noble person. I am out of my comfort zone here. Way out. Most days I would prefer not to set up a meeting. I would prefer not to navigate that blurry boundary between meeting a real need and taking away a man’s dignity, between loving the downtrodden and treating him like a charity case. There are so many dynamics at work here and I am painfully conscious of them. I do not want to be a naïve, privileged white girl who thinks she can swoop in and fix a problem that has been years, even generations, in the making. But I can’t ignore this man while I claim to believe in a God who chooses the poor, the sick, and the needy.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here, big picture. I just know that each time we meet, I walk away a little brighter. Mr. Jones applies to jobs every few days. He tells me, “I think things are gonna change soon, Ms. Dunn. I just gotta stay positive,” and the pessimist in me marvels.

“I think God brought us together for a reason,” he says again and again

I can’t help but think he’s right.

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice: When “Sensitivity” Robs us of Holy Celebration

Recently a Facebook friend of mine announced her pregnancy online. Like many similar Facebook announcements, this one was accompanied by a picture of teensy baby shoes and a due date, but the thing that stood out was a comment she made after the announcement. She explained that following this announcement, she wouldn’t be posting pictures and pregnancy updates on Facebook out of sensitivity to friends who were struggling with infertility, miscarriage, or who were single but longing for a family.  rejoice

My initial reaction to this was, “That’s incredibly thoughtful.” There are many people for whom social media has become an overwhelming bombardment of people who all seem to have the things they most desperately desire. In particular, I have heard from women struggling to get pregnant or who have experienced miscarriages who find the pain of getting on Facebook and reading other people’s pregnancy announcements and updates unbearable at times.

At first I was touched by this woman’s sensitivity – that even in a moment of great personal joy she would be thinking of others. I thought, “I want to be a woman who loves others like that.” But then I started to wonder – how far do we take this kind of sensitivity? Will the pain of those struggling with infertility go away once that baby is born? Unfortunately, probably not. Will that mean this woman is then obligated not to post pictures of her newborn or of her children as they grow? Is there a point at which well-intentioned sensitivity to others robs us of the experience of holy celebration?

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing this woman and her decision. In fact, I deeply respect her decision and admire her thoughtfulness. I don’t know her situation – she may have specific friends or family members in mind whom she is loving truly and well through these actions. The only reason I bring up her announcement is because it served as a catalyst for me to think about two different issues. First, what is the balance between celebration and sensitivity? And second, what is the role of social media and other public platforms in our celebrations?

Today I’m going to focus on that first question. I’ll address the second one in my next post.

A few months ago Christianity Today published an article by D.L. Mayfield about whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. Her major argument was that out of solidarity with those who struggle with alcoholism, Christians should abstain. Christians should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction in Romans 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” She calls out a trend among young, hipster Christians to use alcohol as a symbol of our liberation from fundamentalist traditions and calls for greater compassion towards those trapped in alcoholism by refusing to celebrate something that holds many in bondage.

Some of her points really resonated with me, but I also felt myself pushing back a little. Not so much with the alcohol issue*, but with the way I’ve seen people adopt this attitude – compassion and sensitivity towards those who struggle with something – as a primary value in their lives. If sensitivity and compassion are our primary values then we have to abstain from celebrating anything that might cause someone else pain or discomfort. This would mean not posting a picture of a great meal because someone might be struggling with their weight (or in solidarity with the many people who don’t have enough food). Or not celebrating a promotion at work because someone might not have a job. Or not posting a picture of your first home because others can’t afford one. Or not celebrating getting your PhD because others failed out of college.

There will always be people struggling. There will always be someone who doesn’t have what you have. There will always be someone who is triggered or tempted by something that is an innocent pleasure for you. If you have a relationship with someone and part of loving them is being sensitive to their vulnerabilities, then by all means, show love and grace by avoiding alcohol or by not emailing them your ultrasound pictures, or not bringing up how well you did on your SATs. We are called to love others more than we love ourselves and this may be part of how we love well. But if your motivation is a general concern that you might maybe offend someone or that someone might be hurt that you are experiencing something great and they aren’t, then I think you are robbing yourself of holy celebration.

It’s true, the Bible says to “Mourn with those who mourn,” but FIRST it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Rom. 12:15) I think there is something important about sharing our joy with others – about celebrating God’s goodness in community. I think there is a way for us to rejoice, to celebrate, with both joy and compassion.

I don’t have this figured out, but I think one important part of this is our attitude when we share good news. Are we rejoicing in the unmerited gifts of God, or are we boasting? Do we celebrate with gratitude or do we take for granted blessings that others may not be experiencing? I think it’s much more problematic when we ignore or even complain about the blessings we have than it is when we celebrate the gifts in our lives.

For example, I don’t think it’s wrong to rejoice in a pregnancy on Facebook, but it might be wrong to complain about morning sickness or about how huge your stomach is on Facebook when there are many women reading that who would give anything to be feeling those things. Or here’s an example from my own life. Once I was complaining to a single friend that the problem with us waiting to start a family was that there was no guarantee it would be easy when we felt ready and maybe by the time we were stable enough for kids I would be too old, etc. My friend very gently told me, “It really bothers me when you say things like that. I also want a family and worry about waiting too long, but I don’t have a husband like you do. If you are that worried about it, you could start trying at any time. I don’t even know for sure I’ll get the chance.” Ouch.

She was right and I was convicted of my insensitivity and ungratefulness. The problem in both of these examples is insensitivity, but it’s the result of taking for granted the blessings in our lives instead of viewing them as unearned, lavish gifts.

I’m still mulling this one over. How do we celebrate with compassion and love for those who aren’t celebrating? How do we enter into others’ pain and loss without denying ourselves these sacred celebrations? And on the other side of that, how do we rejoice with those who rejoice when we feel like mourning? I would love your thoughts.

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*I have close family members who are alcoholics. I admit that alcohol is a unique struggle in that, unlike greed or gluttony or a shopping addiction, alcohol has a large potential to physically hurt the alcoholic and other innocent people – drunk drivers, domestic abuse, neglect, etc. So while it isn’t “worse” than other sins or harmful behaviors, the consequences can be more serious and far-reaching. Additionally, the verse in Romans is talking about “not causing a brother to stumble”, not “not causing a brother to be uncomfortable or jealous” and I recognize the distinction.

No Right Words: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

The news came in bits and pieces – a trip to the hospital, some internal bleeding, too much blood thinner. Then the suspicion of diabetes which would mean big lifestyle changes. More tests to confirm. And then they found the tumor, wrapped around pancreas and liver, obstructing valves and major arteries. Then the biopsy and the final (though no longer unexpected) diagnosis – Cancer.

And just like that, life changes. Conversations about what will happen next year or even next month are fraught with hesitation. The future everyone has taken for granted now dangles by a thread.

I am amazed by how quickly perspective shifts in these situations. Something clicks into places and our fundamentally adaptive natures try to bend themselves around a new reality. We find ourselves saying things that would have been ridiculous just weeks ago. “I’m so glad he made it to the hospital when he got sick.” “It’s wonderful that he has family with medical training to help.” We are grateful for the most absurd things. For the shots of insulin that simulate a pancreas. For a treatment plan that may buy a few more precious months.

This grief is one step removed from me -the loved one of a dearly loved one. I won’t pretend that this affects me as directly as it does her and her family. (But surely the next worst thing after losing someone you love must be watching someone you love losing someone they love).

I stand in my shower on the other side of the world and sob, hiding my face in the corner of the tiled wall. My loved one is losing her loved one and I am not there. How could I not be there? And instead I am in this wretched (right now) country 7,000 miles away, unable to do the only thing I know how to do. Be present. I get out of the shower and try to prepare myself for the conversation I’m about to have. I am afraid. I rely on words like air and suddenly there aren’t any right ones.

I think of the story of Lazarus. That famously short verse that simply says, “Jesus wept.” This story has always moved me deeply. It’s not just that Jesus shows empathy and humanity in this moment. It’s because he shows it in spite of the fact that he is minutes away from raising Lazarus back to life.

Almost two years ago to the day, a classmate of mine from college passed away unexpectedly. At the time I wrote this post about grieving where I reflected on what it meant for Jesus to weep for Lazarus in spite of knowing that glory was mere minutes away. Maybe this isn’t just a story to reassure us of Jesus’s compassion, but is also instructive for us in how to be human.

“I think it’s this exact feeling we have when things like Josiah’s death occur. We are wracked with grief because the world is not as it should be. Our hearts are torn because, even though we have the hope of eternity, in the present things are broken. I think Jesus shows us by example that it is appropriate, even correct, to grieve for the brokenness of the present even as we hold the hope of the future. What is more horrific  in the present than the stark contrast of the way the world is now against the glorious way it was meant to be and will be in the future?”

I open my computer and my friend’s face fills the screen.  “This is NOT OK,” I say to my dearest friend, whom I love as though she is a part of myself,. “And it’s probably not going to be OK for a long, long time. And it’s OK not to be OK.” I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say, but I refuse to profane this moment by spewing words I don’t mean. Maybe these aren’t the most encouraging words, but they are the only ones that feel true.