The one-and-only moment

I am constantly amazed by the participants in this blog.

When I received Rosemary’s deeply moving story last week I wondered, how can anyone respond, except by marveling at it? And then Rhonda came forward with her important and provocative question, “Can you say in very concrete terms what you mean when you say the only way to help people stuck in poverty is to love them?”

I think Rhonda has nailed the question many of us, especially those in the helping professions, are asking. We know the dangers of love as a sentimental but ineffectual thing. I remember my sister Cathy as a teenager, infuriated by a TV advertisement for people with developmental disabilities. The ad consisted of photos of disabled children while the soundtrack ran, “Love is all I have to give to you.” My sister turned to me and said, “That is so ridiculous. Love is not the only thing. How about education? How about a job? How about financial independence?”

On the other hand, I know people who work tirelessly for social justice, but do not have a single homeless friend; who love the working classes in principle, but in practice scorn everything working class people enjoy or value.

The love that transforms

My question is, “how does one truly love, not in the sentimental, ineffectual sense, but in the way that transforms lives?” How does one love in the way John Deacon suggests, when we “begin to experience the truth that ‘blessed are the poor?’”

I don’t know the answer to this question. Instead, I have questions of my own. Is it love when I go home to my beautiful house at 5 pm, while you go back to squalour? Is it love when the relationship ends when I’m assigned another project? Is it love when you pour out your life to me, while I reveal nothing of mine? And is it love when you are my work, my “project?” Is it love when my feelings of self-worth – of doing a good job – depend on your success?

And yet, if we put upon ourselves the obligation to truly love everyone we worked with and for, wouldn’t we be completely swallowed up? Traditional professional boundaries may chafe us sometimes, but they also protect us.

Inching towards an answer

I’m hoping many of you will jump in with your own answers to Rhonda’s question. To start us off, I’d like to offer one clue inspired by the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Lindbergh writes,

“We all wish to be loved alone.  . . . Perhaps, as Auden says in his poem, this is a fundamental error in mankind.

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Is it such a sin?” And then Morrow notes, “There is no one-and-only . . . there are just one-and-only moments.”

Isn’t that exactly it? I know I don’t want anyone to love me because they believe, in principal, that it’s the right thing to do. I want to be loved alone, for my real self.

I believe members of the helping professions can offer that sort of “one and only moment” because I have experienced such moments myself – not just from doctors, pastors or teachers, but also from people who were too popular or busy to be my real friends. I’m thinking of the CEO who focused her attention entirely on our conversation, without looking at her watch or hurrying to the next item in her daytimer. I’m thinking of the politician who sought me out after a meeting to discuss a question I’d raised. I’m thinking of the most-popular-girl-in-the-school who stopped abruptly during a distance run together and said, “Joy, you could do anything you wanted to do.” These are all fleeting moments. But the made me feel special, encouraged and energized. They have, in fact, been life-changing.

Last year I saw a documentary called Inside. Outside., made by and about people with serious mental illness. They had all been hospitalized, sometimes for decades, but were now living independently, working, raising children, and living lives they would have thought impossible while in hospital. Many of them attributed their recovery to fleeting moments – moments as simple as a nurse asking “How are you?” and really meaning it.

Friends, it’s your turn. How would you answer Rhonda’s question?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The one-and-only moment

  1. The insight re: ‘one and only moments’ is profound. It’s now in my journal.

    I think the answer to Rhonda’s question about how does one love those stuck in poverty is not dissimilar from the question ‘how does one love God?’
    It’s that old downward mindset central to Paul’s life’s passion – the intentional giving up of privilege and taking the lowest place, not only to identify with the least, but with God.
    It’s a love affair. Nothing but a love affair would have us giving up what we have to know Christ and becoming one with him. Nothing but a love affair would have us giving what we have to know the poor whom to befriend is Christ. Isn’t that why Jesus calls them ‘blessed’?
    We can’t love one without the other.

  2. OK, these are coming a little too fast over the plate for me, so I better start swinging pretty soon. (I’m still trying to figure out how to respond to Richard Hopton’s post of April 25, but I figure I have to start somewhere in the mean time.) So here goes:

    Let’s start in the world of familiar quotations. One by Jesus is right up there: The poor you will always have with you. Assuming he was doing more that showing off that he could pull an apposite quote from Deuteronomy 15:11 (without Google! What a guy!), what did he mean?

    Well, don’t figure he meant it’s a natural phenomenon. Rather, he meant that unless attitudes didn’t change, there would always be poor people. If critics of the status quo are using the poor as props in their demonstrations for change, the poor will stay poor. If apologists for the status quo accept there has to be collateral damage in “the war against inflation,” the poor will stay poor. And a social system that has other goals (maximizing output, return on investment, allocation of resources according to popular sentiment) pretty well guarantees that there will be poor people as a consequence. (Consequence: now there’s an uncomfortable word.) It comes down to priorities, to attitude.

    So, what about attitudes? The second half of Mark 14:7 has a zinger: “…and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” Well now. There sure are a lot of opportunities. How do we deal with them? There’s the guy outside the grocery store or liquor store. (Reminds me of one of my favourite jokes: “My friends always tell me not to give money to beggars, saying they’ll only blow it on booze and smokes. Like I wasn’t?)

    But getting beyond the transactions on the street, what works? Showing kindness, I would submit, is the minimum. Recall the words of Micah “He has told you what is good; to do justice, and to love kindness….” Love kindness. I like that one. Note to self: no matter how busy or distracted you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what problem you encounter, can it hurt to be kind? (I think of the emergency room nurses and doctors I’ve encountered over the years when I’ve gone in with an injury or a sick child. Also the cops and ambulance workers. All of them often are dealing with drunk, mentally ill, hurt people. But surprisingly often, the staff are kind. And that must mean a lot.)

    Then do justice. Will that help lift some people out of poverty? Unquestionably. So what’s the problem? Let’s do justice. (But let’s not forget kindness to people who get caught in the wheels of the system.) That needs to be a priority, a social attitude.

    I feel I’m circling around the “love” issue, the topic of the discussion.

    Rosemary said, “There are simply no straightforward easy ways to help people stuck in poverty. Maybe few ways at all, except to love them.” Maybe we’re getting closer.

    Joy asked, “How does one truly love, not in the sentimental, ineffectual sense, but in the way that transforms lives?” But I don’t think love works that way. (Can I argue in public with my wife about love?) I don’t think love is an act of will, or as the result of an effort. It’s a response to another person (at least, that was my experience when I first saw Joy). In that case, the life-transforming love had no intention to make anyone else’s life better. It made mine better.

    I know it’s different when talking about your spouse that about someone you meet on the street or at work. It’s a big world out there. Rhonda asked, “Can you say in very concrete terms what you mean when you say the only way to help people stuck in poverty is to love them?”

    I’m not sure the original point was that loving them will change the situation of poor people. But maybe the point is that I need to put myself in the situation where I am open to being transformed. I need to be working for a just society (did someone else coin that phrase?). But I need to be doing it for the right reason, that the people who will benefit from this will be others, people I meet either on the street or through my job, people I might never meet, people who won’t necessarily give me anything material, but who did give me the grace of being transformed.

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