Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

Why Read Books?

The current age is that of technology—but more importantly, that of the Internet. We thrive on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. We watch movies on flat screens, post pictures on Tumblr, and text instead of talk. Our world is instantaneous, filled with fast-paced sound bites and  bold colors to catch our fleeting attention. We get frustrated if a webpage takes more than one second to load.

In this kind of world, books seem boring—an outdated method of receiving information or entertainment. Unless they’re e-books, they’re not eco-friendly, take up space, and require time and patience.

So, why read books? Here are four good reasons:

1. Words are the medium of ideas. Whether spoken or written, we use words to communicate with each other—to facilitate relationships, hash out ideas, and express emotions and needs. Without words, we would be reduced to little more than animals. Think of Helen Keller. Before she learned how to use sign language, she was impossibly lost in  isolation, with no language to communicate. When Anne Sullivan  gave her the gift of words, Helen was finally able to share her thoughts and ideas with others.

For millennia, books have served as the medium for preserving ideas. Whether the idea is a mathematical theory, cooking recipe, or family history, books allow us to entrust wisdom to others. I can pick up a copy of Plato’s Republic and hear the ideas that founded Western culture—ideas which are still relevant and discussed globally.

2. Reading is good for the brain. I’m not talking about reading dense philosophy or science books. The very act of reading—even a fun novel—stimulates the functioning of the brain. Research at Emory College has found that reading makes the brain more receptive to language, and increases the connectivity of neurons. These changes last for up to five days after a reader has finished a novel. Reading is an active engagement of the brain to the material on the page.

3. Books give us perspective. By myself, I can’t understand what others have suffered, or what it means to be part of another culture. But I can learn so much with a book. Reading Gone With the Wind helped me understand a period of US history from the losing side. The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird showed me what it was like to live on the wrong end of racial prejudice. Books take us outside ourselves and teach us to see through the eyes of other people. Hopefully, we can learn to be more understanding and avoid the mistakes of older generations.

4. Books require imagination. One of my rules of life is to never watch a film adaptation before I’ve read its book. Starting with the movie ruins the book for me, because I’m left with the actors’ faces in my mind, instead of using the author’s words to invent my own picture. Books are grand in a way films can never be, because books allow us to imagine. The mind is a wonderful place to wander, and books help us find our way there.

I’m not saying  we should forsake technology in favor of printed material. Other mediums can certainly engage in the same ideas as books. For example, the movie Dead Poets Society has helped me think through the narrow-mindedness of certain social expectations, just as reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice did. Video games teach problem-solving and strategy skills; blogs provide immediate interaction with ideas. These mediums are valuable in their own right.

But for me, there is nothing better than printed words on a solid page. Books are worth reading.

Our Plesant Evils: On Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”

In his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon college, David Foster Wallace pointed out to students that the most “obvious, important realities” are the most difficult to talk about. They’re the ones in which and by which we live our daily lives. They are the rituals, traditions, pleasantries, and belief systems without which the world as we know it would crumble. Wallace likens the difficulty we face talking about these realities to fish having a conversation about being wet.

Conversations about reality are difficult not because we are out of touch with it, but because we are immersed in it. For example, Wallace says that our “self-centered” interpretation of the world is a reality no one remembers to think about:

…there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

Constructive conversations about the realities we’ve forgotten often require a good story. Stories, like reality, are immersive, but they immerse us in a different reality with different rules and different modes of living. Then, like a mirror, they become a way for us to compare and see the things in our own lives that go unnoticed.

Most Recently, I’ve discovered Shirley Jackson, who, in her short story “The Possibility of Evil,” explores the evils perpetuated by our sense of pleasantness—a reality by which we live but no longer examine.

To my shame, I didn’t know anything about Shirley Jackson until I taught her short story to a class of twenty-seven high school sophomores. My first read did not garner much enthusiasm from me because I didn’t “get it.” It seemed too obvious. Miss Strangeworth of Pleasant Street is both strange and pleasant with a weird obsession: scouring her town of possible evil. No secret illicit teenage romance will go unnoticed, or a new mother’s secret worry that her child might be retarded. Without hesitation, Miss Strangeworth sends anonymous handwritten letters to the ignorant related parties warning them of the danger just under their noses. Jackson, however, does not settle for the obvious analogies and ironies.

Throughout the story, Jackson forces the reader to keep asking the question, “what makes Miss Strangeworth strange?” If nothing else, Miss Strangeworth is a jumble of contradictions. She both takes pleasure in the letters she sends, but never wants her name to be associated with their purported suspicion. Miss Strangeworth also believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and that “a clean heart is a scoured heart,” but she herself is a soft, dainty, and fragile old lady who could never withstand her own scouring. The recurring contradictions are strange, yes, but not unheard of.

Instead, it’s the pleasantness of Strangeworth that makes her strange. I asked my students at the beginning of class whether they thought Miss Strangeworth is evil, and I received a resounding “NO!” Their argument was that despite the evil incurred by her letters (insulting children, sabotaging marriages, and frightening people of physicians), Strangeworth has good intentions–she wants the town to be clean of evil. But herein lies the problem: the evil caused by Miss Strangeworth’s letters are not ameliorated by her good intentions. By the end of the story, Miss Strangeworth’s activities are discovered and she receives a fitting punishment.

Jackson’s insight into the nature of evil can be difficult to stomach because it pokes through the facade we all like to maintain: pleasantness and good intentions. In fact, I don’t think Miss Strangeworth is aware of her own evil. Her obsession with her own pleasant way of life has become a blind spot for her as much as it was to my students and me.

In her writing, Jackson is pointing her finger at an obvious, important reality and saying, “See this? It’s causing evil.” So, as one of my students rightly pointed out, if we conclude that Miss Strangeworth is the evil character in the story, then we will have to extend the same judgment to ourselves. With phrases like, “It’s the thought that counts,” we excuse people of misdeeds because we think their intentions are good. Shirley Jackson, on the other hand, suggests that this kind of behavior is a license for evil to run rampant.

After 3 hours of discussion, I left my students with this question: how has our own pleasantness and obsession with appearances blinded us to the evil in our own lives?

It’s the kind of question that can always be asked anew; because we are so soaked in reality, new areas for questioning will always arise. Historically, most of the important social changes occurred when people noticed societal constructs that had gone unexamined. Changes in racial and gender equality are two of the most recent and easiest examples to point to. These changes, however, were (and still are) turbulent because nobody likes to question the things that make life pleasant.

Jackson’s stories are shocking not just because they often end unexpectedly and sometimes brutally, but because they make us see the reality that soaks us. We are not innocent of the reality we’ve forgotten to think about, and Jackson is all too aware of the implications of the ways evil can thrive when we leave it unattended. For further evidence of her awareness, you only need to read her most (in)famous story “The Lottery.”

The process of becoming aware of reality is painful and shocking. When we realize that the pleasant lives we lead are implicated in evil, we must change. Until we realize it, however, we must practice self-reflection—we must read stories and ask questions. “The trick,” as Wallace points out, “is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” Shirley Jackson helps us through this process; she awakens our awareness of reality by constantly repeating to us, like Wallace, “This is water. This is water.”