When I was a youth pastor I ran a mission trip to Los Angeles (I knew how to pick places to serve). It was through www.csm.org, which is a wonderful organization. We spent a week serving in soup kitchens and food banks, and afterwards we celebrated by going to Disneyland (I definitely knew how to pick places to serve). Los Angeles was actually a really great place to do a mission trip (not just for Disney) because of the infamous Skidrow, which “contains one of the largest stable populations (between 5,000 and 8,000) of homeless people in the United States.” . In the heart of Skidrow was a shelter that was seriously impressive. It had multiple levels with each level representing a client being one step closer to being integrated into normal society on their own with a job and place to live. At the end of our tour we were at the top of the building and I was able to look down over a large section of Skidrow. It was shocking to see the thousands of people on the street just outside the shelter. I asked the tour guide why they weren’t inside getting help and he said it was because they didn’t want it. On some level they were comfortable enough with their lifestyle that they didn’t want to change it. The shelter was there and ready to help everyone who came in the front doors and protocols were in place to encourage the people outside to come in, but it was surprisingly rare for people to actually want help to get off the streets. Being homeless was the life they knew and often familiarity feels safer. I’d even say it’s arrogant of me to tell someone who’s not breaking the law or hurting others how they should live. I’m sure you can think of someone who feels it’s their job to tell you how to live. Meddling and bossy people are awful, which means I need to be careful not to do what I hate.
As an outsider choosing to live on the streets because it’s familiar can sound crazy, but if we look at our own lives, we likely have something we’re currently doing that’s limiting our life, yet refuse to do anything about it. For some of us, it’s an obvious addiction like drinking or smoking while for others it’s the addiction of pleasing others or trying to feel good enough for someone. Perhaps it’s the opposite problem of not caring enough about our health or other people. How many people yell and attack others when all they want is to feel loved? How many people live a life that’s constantly in a state of feeling overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but they don’t do anything to help themselves? I love the lyrics of the one song: “Everyone wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change themselves.” How true is that statement? It’s easy to see everyone else’s mistakes, but we ignore our own issues. Jesus said “Don’t worry about the speck in someone else’s eye when there’s a plank in your own” (para) because He saw this too. If I was God looking down, I’d have a sore neck from constantly shaking my head at the decisions people make: (me as God) “Stop doing that! It’s only making your life worse!”
At night Skidrow filled up with tents as the homeless people put up their tiny shelters. What was really interesting is many people looked proud of their meticulously kept tent like a proud owner of a house. It was definitely a way of life for them. Meanwhile, just a short distance away was the shelter with a warm bed and meal available to them, yet thousands of people didn’t want the help because they were content with the way things were. Ultimately, the workers at this shelter had to accept that they couldn’t force these people to change, and they needed to focus on helping the people who wanted the help. If the workers didn’t do this, it would be incredibly discouraging and lead to them burning out and/or giving up. They needed to protect themselves from the potential discouragement. Ultimately, the workers at the shelter had to let the people outside suffer.
As a therapist I had to quickly learn this lesson of letting people suffer. I can try to encourage people to want to change and do what I can to teach tools that can help, but I can’t force people to grow; that is up to them. I once worked with a couple for several months and every week they left saying what I taught made sense and was really helpful and then the next week… nothing. They never did anything I taught no matter how much they liked it. It was like they were comfortable in their fighting. Fortunately, I know it’s not my job to force change or I’d get discouraged and want to give up. It’s hard to get people to go to therapy; it’s harder to get people to continue going to therapy; and it’s hardest getting people to use the therapy they receive as a way to grow. Instead of focusing on who I’m not helping, I need to be grateful for those I can. Even further, instead of focusing on what’s wrong with other people, I need to make sure I work on removing the plank in my own eye. We all have our areas where we need to grow, and we need to be given the opportunities to both fall flat on our faces and the encouragement to get back up. There is freedom when we stop trying to control other people even if it means letting them suffer in order for them to realize they need to make a change. This lesson is incredibly important for parents to learn because the best teachers role model what they want their students to learn. If you want your kids to be happy, learn how to be happy yourself and lead the way.
This week may you learn the freedom that letting others suffer can bring.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people