Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Count the Cost

This entry is a continuation of my foray into analyzing the many relationships and safety nets that balance (or seem to balance) our lives and cause them to be less out of control than they generally seem. It all boils down to the term accountability. It's a nice word. Multi-syllabic. People love it. They use it in sentences aimed at proving their adulthood and awareness of current events. Example: " There's simply no accountability in Congress. " In common sense speak: "Those fools are crazy. Someone needs to get them in check." Whether you actually use that term with any regularity, you'll be comforted to know that it's just a term for glorified safety net. :-)

Ever walked in a mall and people watched for just a few minutes(or hours) ? The sightings are always rather comical. There's always the handful of people (usually inappropriately dressed) who make you say, "Where are that person's friends?!?! The truth is, they either don't have them or they left the ones that hold them accountable at home. Whatever the case, they are proof that we are in desperate need of accountable relationships in our lives, if only for the protection of the masses (sometimes a safety net to one is a safety net to all) :-). We need people who cry and laugh with us, people who root us on to victory, people who give us the "you know are wrong for that" look, people who let us know that 'he's just not that into you'. Not only do I pose the question of whether or not we have these kids of people in our lives, but also, what would our lives look like if EVERYONE had them. I've seen adults live reckless, boundless lives that land them in trouble at one point or another. I've seen the same adults get out of fixes to go back to the same lives, continually crafting an early demise.This is quite troubling, considering that a good friend with a solid piece of advice could have helped them avoid it all.

My pastor recently preached a series on the Top 5 most important relationships in life. Among them were the editor, the giver, the receiver and the true friend. As he belabored the point of how these relationships are indispensable, I thought about who these people were in my life. The many people that expected too much of me and the few people (thankfully the few) that expected too little. And whether I'd like to believe that I am an ideological island, these people all help me to shape my expectations of myself. I think of my mother who encouraged me (I think threatened is a better word) to stay in school when I thought my days would be better spent as a Colombian ranch hand. My girls in Greensboro who held me down (and often times held me back) from the temptations that beset the average college student. It's the only kind of positive peer pressure there is. And when you think of the many people that have helped you do the same, you'll probably be happy that folks don't leave you entirely to your own devices. That, or you'll resent people even more than ever. :-/ Whatever the case, when counting the cost to live, the gambles (good and bad) that we take to maximize our potential, we simply cannot afford to be without accountable relationships.

Sometimes it takes years to understand who these people are/were in your life. Sometimes, the purpose of a relationship is made clear by a tragic event or loss. But more often the tragedy is that we neglect, abuse and all but ruin these relationships without ever extracting the meaning or learning the lesson. Every true relationship in your life deserves this type of assessment. I mean, imagine our Congress with NO accountability. (If you are a skeptic like me, that's not so hard to do.) Without folks to asses their actions and call them on the carpet. The world would surely be a mess. Wait, it kind of is. Scratch that. But if Joe Wilson (the dude who yelled out during Obama's speech) didn't have people trying to run him out of office, we'd have to question the role of accountability in our democracy. Our lives reflect this very same concept. Accountability weaves itself in and out of the corners of our consciousness and morality, assessing the value of our decisions and our subsequent actions. Often, this thread gets lost and we need people to pull it through. So, if you would, do me a favor. Take some time to thank those people without whom you would be lost. Thank them for your past, even if you barely survived it. Thank them for your present. The richness and humor that they add to your days and nights. And lastly thank them for your future because while it is uncertain, you will certainly need them.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

House of Cards

There have been only rare instances in my life that have moved me to tears, challenged the very meaning of my existence and begged the kind of questions that everyone can answer and only few choose to. I had one of those experiences a few weeks ago, doing homeless outreach with the Metro Atlanta Singles Ministry, not just making sandwiches to send them to a places you'd rather not think about, but actually going to the places that they lives, the areas under bridges that they make to look like villages. And while most people would consider something like this a high priority on a do-gooder checklist, if you look deep into the lives of the people that you are serving, and if you are honest, you see that they are not much different from you and I. And how, you may ask, can someone who lacks material possessions and shelter be just like you and I? I'll give you a hint, it's not because they are human.....No, it's because there is only one thing separating us nets.

I've spent a great deal of my life clinging to the safety nets of family, friends, education, faith. No matter how hard I fall or far back I slip, at least one of those nets catches me, in the nick of time. And what would I do in the absence of those? I have no clue. But I do know that survival and sanity would look very different for me. Because often times, the absence or loss of one safety net leads to the loss of another. When we loose the security of family, we are often unable to pursue the education that would help us hold onto the jobs that will keep us safe from unemployment and therefore sheltered from the reality of homelessness. It can all seem like a rapid downward spiral. But it is all too real in the times that we are living in. So why try to act as if we are so removed from those who are homeless? Ah, therein lies the invisible safety net of pride and entitlement, the dilusionary safety nets that say to you "You are where you are and not where they are because you work harder and have made better choices with your life." It almost to say that life is fair. And surely you wouldn't say that, would you? Because you and I both know that this perception completely ignores the choices that are made for you and the ones that you never have the opportunity to make.

I've done homeless outreach before while in school in Greensboro, NC, while resting on the safety net of the pursuit of a college education. And while I attempted to connect with the people that I was serving, there was still a palpable distance. An inner thought which said to me, "this wont ever be you, you are in college making something of your life." But now, only a few years later, I'm out of college, STILL trying to make something of my life, living with my family, with no insurance. It's by no means a miserable existence, but those are the facts. It's now my reality that I am living on threads of what I once considered safety nets. One hospital bill could put me in the poor house. And one split-second decision by my parents to set me out to sea and I'm outdoors. And once I caught a glimpse of that reality, a reality that not even entitlement or pride could shield me from, it didn't seem so strange to pray with a man who was out on the streets because he had no family to take him in and was tormented by fear night after night. It always seems to me that the have nots are so much stronger in spirit and faith than the haves. Like one of my fellow volunteers commented, "To be out on the streets, to have nothing, and to be seemingly forgotten and to still believe that there's a God takes a stronger faith and a stronger spirit that I can even fathom." And through all of this Ive learned that The true ministry element in outreach is to realize how much like you the people that you are serving are. To recognize, that while you and I appear to have such as firm grasp on the nets that keep us safe, our existence is really quite fragile, built upon the blessings and mercy of something so much higher than us. But at any moment, in the absence of one or two elements, it could all crumble.... like a house of cards.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Victims and Victors

Having spent over two decades observing and often times internalizing the predicaments of those around me, at least one thing has become clear. We are pretty much conditioned by society to think, act and live as victims. Wait, let's not even blame society, we are conditioned by ourselves and one another (those who enable us) to think, act and live as victims. We are always looking for ways to remove ourselves from the doom-ridden world of blamedom. Ever since our days on the playground, we knew that blame was always directed through your finger, pointing directly at SOMEONE ELSE. It takes us at least 15 years-and for some folks even longer-to get the whole "there are 3 finger pointed back at you" thing. Some people get it and just plain ignore it.Very well then. There's even book that I used to read to my kids called "The Terrible, Awful, No good, Very Bad day" about a girl whose whole day goes wrong and she is? You guessed it. The victim. Hmmm.

I've seen people make a life for themselves centered around the hurt they suffered at the hands of someone else....decades ago. Their overall personal growth is stunted, meanwhile, the offender goes on to live a healthy life. The reality of a life of such victimization is that once you stop, complaining, you are ultimately STILL responsible for the direction in your life. Whether you succeed or fail still depends on you. And before I continue, I think that it's important to make the distinction between those who have suffered mental, spiritual, emotional, physical harm at the hands of someone else and those who have elected the victim mentality as a way of life. What does it mean to be a victor? For a victor, adversity is fuel which powers them forward toward the finish line. A victim regards every bit of adversity as the Gods of the universe taking a swipe at their insignificant existence.

We're all very familiar with a most common form of victimization, drama. Drama casts a person, a victim, in a theatrical interpretation of a less dramatic situation,starring, themselves. Let's put it this way, I live in a house of Oscar Award Winners. I'll probably regret having said that at some point.The beauty/tragedy of both the position of victim and victor in a situation is that they can be the same person. The way I see it, someone can shift from being one or the other through a series of choices. They include:

(1) Identifying a reoccuring pattern in victimized situations. P.S- DONT REPEAT THESE PATTERNS

(2) Take ownership of who you are- what's your potential to cause such problems?? Be HONEST!

(3) Request that people (friends, family, innocent bystanders that happened to sit down next to you in the break room and wish they hadn't) STOP enabling you!! Make an earnest plea.

(4) Consider the situations of those who are less fortunate. (They do not have to be poor.)- This is the real kicker and will probably shut you up really quick.

I've met countless people who are afflicted by illness or suffering the burden of an extraordinarily painful situation who still manage to give SO MUCH to others. Homeless people who have greatly inspired me to keep doing what I am doing. While these things amaze me, they also speak to the small mindedness of people who are unable to do so. I know, everyone is not a superman or woman, but it is a request that we must make of our humanity. In a recession, especially, when job loss becomes the norm, it is all too easy to curl up into a ball. But tests like these are really only a mirror reflecting your character and strength. The truest of opportunities to choose victory over victimization. Becoming a victor doesn't make the hurt, or the pain, or the frustration or the consequence go away. It does, however, put a person in a situation where they can begin to forgive, take ownership, and MOVE ON. Most importantly, they can make the kind of impact that the world needs. An impact that is characterized by boldness possessed by those who claim it. A boldness to which the perpetual victim has no access. The fact that we, as a collective society, haven't really learned this pretty much explains why we are where we are. But as the saga of real life continues to unfold, we realize that the future belongs only to the victors. As for the perpetual victims, there is no room available. Pick your team.

My grandma says about people (much like someone would comment on cheap tables and chairs) "They don't make em like they used to." I hope she's wrong.