Being honest

It is an interesting thing I have learned about myself the last few years: the needier I feel, the stingier I become. I wrote about this in one of my earlier blog entries, and as much as I have repented of this and prayed for a new heart in this area, I still struggle. Clearly, we as a family are currently in a time of maximum neediness (There is some irony that Doug’s first Fuller class in over two years that starts tomorrow night is Job and Human Suffering). And this weekend I found myself begrudging a gift to someone. My reason? I didn’t believe they really needed it, we had already helped this person with money recently, and I judged how they would use our gift. Thankfully Doug’s heart was a fleshy contrast to my stony one, and the gift was given.

As I thought about this today, I was reminded of a deeply troubling passage I read a while back from a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City (by David Simon and Edward Burns). I quoted from this book for one of my Quotation of the Week posts, but I did not use what I find to be the most difficult parts of the passage. In examining my heart today, I was drawn again to read from this book, and it is the harder words that afflict me now:

“If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we’d pull ourselves past it. We’d raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we’d rise above that, too. We’d shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn off the television, and do our schoolwork. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police raids…No matter. We’d persevere, right? We’d work that job by night and go to class by day, by some miracle squeezing a quality education from the disaster that is the Baltimore school system. We’d do all the work, we’d pay whatever the price…because we pulled self-esteem out of a dark hole somewhere and damned if our every desire isn’t absolutely in check…That’s the myth of it, the required lie that allows us to render our judgments.”

Whether it is the homeless man, the pregnant thirteen-year old or the thugged out gangbanger, I believe that these authors give some of the best insight into why our compassion so often chokes.

The chapter closes with this, and reading it today makes me cry:

“Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. We would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthinkly assume that we would be consigned to places like Fayette Street fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training we now possess…Amid the stench of so much defeat and despair, we would kick fate in the teeth and claim our deserved victory. We would escape to live the life we were supposed to live, the life we are living now. We would be saved, and as it always is in matters of salvation, we know this as a matter of perfect, pristine faith.”


  1. It’s often troubling to see how the attitudes of those not in the “problem” regarding the inner city and its products believe the lie that it is simply the result of bad decisions. How sad a day that is when we outside judge those inside, and make ourselves believe that we are right.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Erika, your transparency is always so heartbreaking to me. I love you for it.

    I remember reading and being challenged by that exact same passage. For me personally, pretty much the greatest weariness of all in this line of work is discerning case-by-case when to help and when to say no. I have come to believe that, honestly, the only way to know is to be led blindly by the Holy Spirit in that very particular circumstance. We never have enough information to compare needs (ours vs. the recipient, or “recipient a” vs. “recipient b”), and so that calculus isn’t even a rational basis for the decision. My personal rule of thumb is just to try to make sure my heart is open to either answer — “no” sometimes being the even harder thing to have to say — and trust Him for all the rest.

    As for the larger point from The Corner, I really believe that living in relationship with people takes care of our concern about imposing unrealistic expectations. If anything, my own heart has grown too lax about expectations and standards after the years on the ground. Empathy long since over-flooded me, and I am convinced I’d be exactly the same had I lived and grown old in these conditions. When I really saw firsthand, I was almost congenitally unable to judge, quite apart from any conscious piety. All I could do was weep, and try to learn from scratch how to live with that much weeping going on all the time inside my heart.

    My greatest alarm in life is how many elite decisionmakers passing judgment that affects intimately the lives of the poor don’t live in any relationship with the poor … The best guarantee of just decisions is for the people who make the policy to live shoulder to shoulder with the people impacted by the policy. Only then do they see well enough to judge rightly and, otherwise, they’re playing Russian roulette in the dark, and the cost is human blood. The reality is this stark. No one can ever convince me otherwise.

    My dream is that a future generation of policymakers will be expected to meet this higher standard of integrity as a matter of course, rather than being penalized for defying “professional” convention. This is why I value so very deeply what you and Doug have chosen to do and why I elevate your personal example anywhere I possibly can. I thank both of you for being you, again and again.

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