The ones we try to help and can’t. The ones who fall through the cracks. The ones who stop showing up to the weekly support group, who stop coming to class. The ones we see on the streets a few months later, back in the grip of their addiction. How do we know when we’ve truly done all we can? Why does our mercy have to be so limited? And, where is God in these moments of disconnection, of loss, of failure?
Earlier this week, two residents of the Catholic Worker house of hospitality where I’ve been volunteering for the past year made the decision to lie to their community. They conned three respected people out of a significant sum of money, saying they needed gasoline to make an urgent trip for family reasons. The real motive was to satisfy their crystal meth addiction.
Once the truth of their actions came to light, they were immediately asked to leave. How could they be permitted to stay? Actions have consequences. “Shelter the homeless” is one work of mercy, but “Admonish the sinner” is another. Were they allowed to stay, a clear message would be sent: that deception is acceptable, that lies are, at least in some circumstances, all right.
Nevertheless, it was a tough moment. The night was cold and rainy. One of the residents had a car to sleep in; the other was waiting to be picked up by a family member with whom he wasn’t fully welcome, but who would at least be able to put a roof over his head. As I helped him load his few belongings into the truck, I felt very sad, as I had enjoyed his company and was sad at the thought of not seeing him again. I was also worried about what would happen next to him, now that he’d lost the house’s support. However, this whole situation was not nearly as difficult for me as it was for some of the full-time Catholic Workers in the house. For them, these two men were housemates and very close friends. To experience this kind of betrayal and loss – as well as feeling an inability to do anything more than let them go – was devastating.
When I was a teenager deciding what professional path to pursue, I gave serious thought to social work as an option. I loved working with people; the idea of counseling survivors of domestic violence or serving those with mental health concerns excited me. But ultimately I turned away from the idea, deciding in part that I wasn’t tough enough. What if I invested months into helping someone, only to lose him or her to suicide?
Many years later, when I was volunteering at a mental health hospital in a large city, co-facilitating a weekly creative writing group, I did come in one day to learn that one of the patients I’d worked with, a chess aficionado and lover of the visual arts, had indeed taken his own life. I didn’t know him that well, but the news still stung. And even in my primary work (college teaching), which I’ve now been doing in some form or another for a decade, I have run up against many situations where my best efforts for an individual fail to yield a result. Students who stop coming to class, who stop answering emails, who drop out; students who share gut-wrenching stories from their lives and then disappear.
People make the choices they make. When we choose to follow a helping vocation, we learn – often in hard ways, usually by making mistakes – that we are not heroes; we cannot live other people’s lives for them. At some point or another, we run up against our own limitations. And for me, as I struggle on a daily basis to believe, this is sadly the point where God’s mercy becomes apparent, even if only because it seems the only thing left. I think of existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, his synthesis between the idealistic path of faith and the fatalistic path of renunciation to a reality beyond our capacity to understand, much less control. I think of acclaimed German-English translator Walter Kaufman’s essay, Life at the Limits, in which he discusses how extreme experiences – poverty, physical pain, danger – can lead to either total disintegration or what he calls “Dionysian joy,” a discovery of beauty and even ecstatic transcendence amid the pain. I think of Wally Lamb’s popular novel The Hour I First Believed, told from the perspective of a teacher who survives the in which the extreme circumstance of a teacher who survives the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and asks whether ultimately it is blind chance or ordered necessity that influences our existence. And I think of “Let go and let God,” a slogan I heard once from a twelve-step program and immediately brushed off as a silly cliché – perhaps especially because I knew that, like all clichés, it is deeply real and true.
My story of this past week does have a somewhat happy ending. One of the people originally asked to leave – who was more of an accomplice than an instigator – was allowed to come back once it became clear that his family would not welcome him and he had nowhere else to go. He knows his stay is contingent on making different kinds of choices. As for his friend who drove away, in that case I really have no choice but to “let go and let God.” To maintain the hope that there will still be another chance for him, just as I try to do the same for the mental health patients who stopped taking their medications and no longer attended the writing workshops I facilitated, for the students who disappeared from my classrooms and attendance records.
It is not easy to maintain faith in God. But sometimes, when we find ourselves or those we love at the edge of the abyss, God is all we find.