In the mess
One of the many things I do during the week is teach. It’s a privilege and a joy to inspire budding helping professionals to take action and develop their skills. But in my class, I have to teach some tough stuff. To be quite honest, some of my lectures are pretty depressing. One class is centered around the structural issues of poverty, which is a colossal social problem with no easy solution. We discuss the cycles of poverty, the causes of poverty, and the human side of poverty. We read painful stories and talk about messy problems. The content hits some students hard. Many are also interning in the public or nonprofit sector and may be finding themselves face to face with huge social problems and their client’s huge personal problems for the first time. It’s overwhelming.
And it hurts. Helping hurts.
It can be painful to get so close to someone’s mess. When we choose to truly help someone, we are choosing to walk with them. And it can hurt. When we choose to listen to the hard stories and we refuse to ignore the big social issues, we can enter into periods of pain. The first time this really hit home for me was when I was about the age of many of my students. I was 20 years old and was volunteering in Indonesia after the Tsunami. My job in community development was to support the residents of this community and help assess their needs as they rebuilt their homes and ultimately their community. But what I didn’t realize as a naive, sheltered, idealistic 20 year old is that to truly help, you must get close. You have to walk beside someone. And I did walk beside these sweet women, children and their families. I took them in my car to visit the mass graves of Banda Aceh. Nothing could have prepared me for the helplessness I felt watching these women wail at the site of the mass graves over their family and friends who perished in the Tsunami. The first time I went, I stood there, frozen, tears streaming down my face. There was nothing I could do but just be there for them. It was there that I realized that to help, sometimes you must feel the hurt.
Even today I’m reminded of the pain of sharing in someone’s story. I am surrounded by painful stories almost every day. My heart breaks when I watch a woman cry in my office because she’s separated from her children due to displacement. It’s so hard to watch the effects of trauma haunt a person who is just trying to start over, to survive. When I read and think about the magnitude of human trafficking in our world today, sometimes it makes me feel paralyzed. When I think about the stories I’ve heard and the things I’ve seen, I feel pain in my heart. It’s a heaviness that those of us who walk with the grieving, the suffering deal with. It’s the heaviness that comes from truly allowing yourself to know and understand the magnitude of injustice in this world.
But I’m telling you, it’s worth it. When you familiarize yourself with the marginalized, you’re walking in the shadow of Jesus’ steps. He was familiar with injustice, with suffering. By stepping out of the bubble of security and comfort and into the mess, I enter into communion with God that I can’t explain. There is even more of an urgency for His Grace, His Mercy when I understand the depths of suffering his children experience. HIS Children, just like me and you. The ‘least of these’ are important to God. It’s our responsibility. It hurts, and it’s not pretty. It doesn’t come with fame and accolades most of the time. But it’s so rewarding. And with each small task, with each small victory, it’s easier to see the redemption in helping within the mess.
So friends who are in the mess with me, friends who are walking with a friend, family member, client, or neighbor through pain and suffering. Friends who are fighting against injustice to the point of exhaustion. Friends who have devoted their vocations to helping others for little pay or gratitude. Friends who can’t sleep sometimes for the stories they’ve heard and the work to be done. Stick with it, keep pushing, keep fighting. We’re in this together.
And it’s worth it.