Monday, March 03, 2008

Compassion Fatigue

We got a call from the Children Raised by Wolves' mother. She asked Fellow Traveler to co-sign a yearly lease for a house. FT said, sensibly, sorry but no. The mom started crying over the phone.

It is so hard to help these people; whenever we do, they up the ante. But we know enough about their robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul financial m.o. to know that entering into any kind of contract with them is a Very Bad Idea. And this is the family that won't consider public housing because then they'd have to give up their junked cars, pack of mangy-curs-on-chains and rabbit hutch: "The rabbits are fun."

I have a friend who, through her church work, got involved with a similarly dysfunctional household. Soon she was being called in the middle of the night with requests like, "So-and-So is in jail. Can you go and bail her out?" She'd schedule doctors' appointments for the pregnant unwed daughter only to have the daughter refuse to comply with the healthcare provider. She'd arrange for the family matriarch to get hooked up with this or that social service, only to have the woman fail to show up for appointments or turn in paperwork. After many months of this, my friend was becoming physically ill, anxious and filled with guilt over somehow "not doing enough" for these people. "Whenever I say I'm done with them, I think, 'What would Jesus do?'" she said, tears in her eyes.

Maybe I'm just channeling the values of my hardworking blue-collar parents, but I can't help but think that at some point Jesus would tell immature, deadbeat parents to look for work, and pursue social services for which they're qualified, with the same energy that they look for excuses; and to make their children, rather than their own comfort and whim, the family priority. Our community is filled with disabled people who nonetheless get up every day and go to a job, as well as with poor families whose family priority is giving their children an opportunity for a better life than theirs.

FT has more opportunity to interact with the neighbors than I do, and has on more than one occasion told them rather bluntly that they need to pull it together for the sake of the kids. We're told that visiting family members have also warned them that they need to start taking responsibility for their lives.

When you think about poverty on a macro level, and wonder how one fights that as a can society even fight it on the household level, when the household won't cooperate? How do you warn people about the consequences of their continued behaviors when "consequences" as a concept holds no meaning for them; when they see themselves as utterly passive objects to whom things simply "happen"?


Rev Scott said...

This is going to sound really harsh, but is this maybe what Jesus meant when he said "You will always have the poor with you"?

Maybe he knew - and he was giving us permission to minister in the best way we can manage, given the bondage (sometimes self-chosen) that holds all sorts of us in captivity.

I had a similar experience yesterday - and I'm glad to know I'm not the only one struggling with these questions.

P.S. an after-thought said...

This is a hard problem to sort out: when to "really" get involved and when to realize that getting involved is enabling or getting under the "power" that such people have over do-gooders.

The not-showing-up-for-appointments is why some health care providers won't take welfare cases. They are underpaid by the state when the people do show up and receive nothing when they don't show up.

What will be the consequences if nothing is done by the family? Do they really understand that? Would it be more helpful in the long run?

This type of situation plays into our stereotype of "people in poverty." What a difference I saw during my trip to Uganda where almost everybody was "poor" but extremely hard working.

Verdugo said...

How do you warn people about the consequences of their continued behaviors when "consequences" as a concept holds no meaning for them; when they see themselves as utterly passive objects to whom things simply "happen"?

That's the key factor, I'm afraid. In my work with homeless families, I found the key factor that determines success or failure in getting off the street is not education level, IQ, ability, but locus of control. Those with an internal locus of control-- who believe their own actions have some impact on their circumstances-- are much more likely to succeed, because they'll take advantage of any opportunities that become available, and use them to leverage assets to work their way into a new life. But those with an external locus of control-- who believe "things just happen" to them and they have no control over their circumstances-- are the hardest to reach because they simply aren't motivated to work toward their future. They see themselves as helpless victims of circumstances (the reality rather is probably something in between).

I've found it very, very hard-- if not impossible-- to change someone's locus of control. It's very very sad when this happens, usually the result of years (or generations) of being beaten down.

Hard as it may be, at some point you have to ask yourself if this arrangement really is in the best interests of the kids, both long- and short- term. Letting the chips fall where they may may in fact be the best thing for them, hard as that sounds.

Verdugo said...

I have been praying for this family, and for you and FT as you struggle to discern God's leading in caring for them in ways that are truly helpful. I'm so glad there are two such wise and compassionate and practical women in these kids' lives.

PamBG said...

What Verdugo said. I was going to say vaguely similar things but it sounds like s/he has much more authority from experience.

I like the 'locus of control' image.

It's a frustrating situation. People do ask - very dramatically - to be rescued and it just results in co-dependence rather than in healing.

Saying another prayer for you and FT and for the family.

Compassion dave said...

When it comes to serving the Lord, if a person ever feels like a 'door mat', they are doing it (the service to the Lord) wrong.

Jesus said His yoke as easy and His burden was light, so if a person feels as if they are being 'used', then they have forgotten that God owns everything and mistakenly have come to believe that God has given them sole possession of that thing they are so hesitant to let go of.

My $0.02 from a biblical perspective.


LutheranChik said...

Compassion Dave: 'Scuse me, but I think everyone posting here is coming from a "biblical perspective."

Crimson Rambler said...

I hear you, I hear you. And I have three of them on the doorstep right this moment. All drunk and belligerent (it's 11 a.m.). As there's no one in the building but me (and the piano-tuner), I am not even responding to the doorbell...enough is enough.

net said...

Jesus wasn't an enabler, LC!

LutheranChik said...

The irony is, of course, that if I were talking about some personal (especially sexual) moral failing of someone I knew, a frowny-faced fundamentalist would probably post a scoldy letter here about how I was "unbiblically" enabling that behavior! "It's always something."

ding said...

I'm not a pastor but I lived with one for most of my life and have seen just what you're talking about. The fatigue, the frustration. I don't have any words of advice but I recognize what you're going through and hope you find a way to find some rest to take care of yourself while going through this. You aren't alone!