Monday, July 30, 2007

Takeaway Story #2 ~ *Poverty Is Not A Family Value*

For more about Takeaway Stories, click here:

So, here goes another Takeaway Story...

Once upon a time, I used to work as a social worker, providing rental subsidies for families living in poverty. My job was to work with people on the waiting list - people waiting for news that they could get help with their rent and establish a stable place of residence with my (and the government's) assistance. So, basically I was working with a lot of people who were homeless or living on the kindness of friends and relatives and needed somewhere to live. After awhile, this kind of work wears on you. You stop caring that people are homeless. It's not that you've forgotten how terrible homelessness can be or that you're a mean, nasty person. It's just that you can't give your heart out to every person that calls you - if you did, you'd end up rocking in the corner repeating ridiculuous phrases or banging your head against a wall. You'd go crazy. Hearts simply can't go out as many places as we'd like them to. If they did, the pieces would be too small to do anything. So you become hard. It sucks, but it happens. You get to keep your heart, and your sanity, but you pay an awful cost. That heart that was so tender gets tougher and tougher just to keep it together until one day you realize that your whole reason for being there - that you were a person who cared and wanted to love people and make a difference - no longer exists. You're not that person anymore. You're just trying to get through the day without anyone screaming at you for too long, and when that is your main goal in life its hard to make much of a difference anywhere.

Anyhow, in my second year at this particular job, on this one particular day I held an intake briefing. Briefings were meetings that 25-35 people would come to and fill out paperwork for their file so I could determine their eligibility for assistance. I would review each needed form with a powerpoint slide while my clients filled in their information on the matching form in front of them. Usually at the end of the briefing a few people would stick around to ask questions and make sure their paperwork was filled out properly. At about every other briefing, someone would have a ridiculuous amount of questions and I would spend another hour working with them. I once gave a briefing in which there was a deaf couple who did not have an interpreter and did not alert me that they couldn't hear a word I was saying until after the meeting. Another time I had a woman come who could not speak English and didn't let me know until afterwards. So when a person sat there, looking like they wanted to ask questions with their forms almost completely blank at the end of a briefing, I usually felt like I wanted to scream, because I know something terrible was coming.

On this particular day, an elderly lady at the back of the room waited until everyone else left to ask me her questions. I went over to her and her forms were completely blank. I felt like screaming. I held my scream in and sat down with her. It didn't take me long to figure out that she couldn't read. She had to ask me what each question was, and then when she filled in her answers, she asked me spell about every third word she wrote. She could write letters - she just couldn't grasp words.

I sat with this woman for a long time - probably over an hour. Time came to leave for lunch and there I sat, spelling street names and reading questions and smiling and hoping I wasn't looking or acting irritated. When we finished with all of her forms, she handed them to me and started gathering up her things. She stopped and looked at me, and then she thanked me. She told me I was a sweet, kind girl, and so patient. She said she was sorry she took up my lunch, but that most people didn't take the time with her that I did, and she appreciated it. She told me that a girl like me would go far in life. And then she gathered up the rest of her things and left.

This is a takeaway story for two reasons. This is the first reason:

When I went back to my desk with all her paperwork, I sat in my chair and I cried like a baby. She said I was sweet. I was not sweet. She said I was kind. I was not kind. She said I was patient. But I was not. This woman told me I was going places in the world because of the kindness I had shown her, and all I could think about was how horrible my heart was - how cold and tired and impatient and worn out and just plain callous my heart was - how all the time she thought I was sweet, I was holding back a scream of frustration. And yet, somehow, I showed her a kindness that stood out to her. I thought of her gathering welfare and talking to caseworkers for food stamps, and I wondered how they had treated her. Not with kindness - no, I'm certain of that - otherwise my little, tired, tarnished bit of humanity would not have been such a treasure to her. I wondered how many times she had been overlooked or put down or treated like a no one - how many caseworkers had thought her stupid and let it show on their faces - how many job applications she couldn't fill out, and how everyday she lived with this. I thought of her age and wondered how easy it must've been to slip through the cracks and never learn to read when she was young. I wondered what had happened - if she had quit school to work and help her family or if there was simply no one who took the time to make sure she knew what she needed to know to get by. I thought of all this and sat at my desk and cried.

This is when I realized how ugly the whole situation it - not humanity, I don't think, but in each of us. I thought we were good. I thought we tried to love and succeeded, and that made us something beautiful. But it turns out, we're not good, even when we try to be. Even at our best, even when we're growing, there is still so much ugliness inside us. And when we love one another and make the world good, it is nothing short of a miracle. This is one of the experiences that taught me that I must look at that ugliness and embrace it and expose it to make it any better. I did not know I was unkind until the old woman told me I was kind - I did not know I was impatient until she thanked me for my patience. But when I saw it and I owned it and I let it tear me apart that this is what I was, something better was born. I still have ugliness in those places, and I have ugliness in other places too. I think of that song by the Exies - how it says we are dirt, we are alone, we are fake, we are afraid, we are liars, and we are ugly - and I feel okay. I feel okay because at least I know it now. At least I know what I am battling with and I have a chance to try to be better.

The second thing that makes this a takeaway for me is this:

This happened when I was a part of Overflo. I think it happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and Overflo met on Thursdays, so it was still pretty fresh for me when we met that week. That Thursday night I went to Overflo and poured out my heart. That is how my heart seems to come out... it doesn't trickle and it doesn't flow, it just pours in a torrent that I can't stop. But while I was lamenting and my heart was open and raw, Joe told me that we can't help everyone. This confused me. But as he spoke, it made more sense. He said that sometimes our hearts are moved, not so that we can help someone, but so that our hearts can change.

I think this moment changed things for me. Because I felt like there was finally a point. It was the first time I ever understood why Jesus said that there would always be poor among us. Its not always about the poor. Sometimes its about my heart. Not to say that we shouldn't help the poor. We should do what we can, but as a former social worker, I've come to see that we can only do so much. We do what we do, and even when our hearts are pure and our reach is big, we can't help everyone. We simply can't.

I believe that we grow into more or retreat into less in every choice we make and every action we take. When my heart was open and raw and it was all pouring out and I was crying at my desk like a child, I was growing into more. I was learning to love. Sometimes its hard to love when you can't do something that gets results. I think its actually the hardest love - sitting back and caring until it breaks you when you can't do a damn thing about the way things are. But it is the most selfless love - the love that grows our hearts the most. And sometimes, that's what its about.

P.S. Again, my Currently Reading ROCKS!
"There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal 'Once upon a

time'. Endings are heartless. Ending is just another word for goodbye."

Currently reading : The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower, Book 7) By Stephen King Release date: By 29 August, 2006

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