On Homelessness and Helping

Spring has come! ‘Tis the season of pink blossoms, green pastures, and showing off those white winter legs in a new pair of shorts. It’s the season of hiking, biking, and a growing disregard for dirt tracked into the living room.

It is also the season when we once again interact with certain neighbors in our community: homeless people who sleep under the city bridge and stand at the intersections.

These temperature temperatures have allowed me to transpose my runs back to the early morning, and it is there that I’ve encountered the familiar faces who rest on the park benches and wave to me as I huff past the library. And recently, I was overjoyed (though unsurprised) to find some great insights from Econtalk’s most recent episode, Erica Sandberg on Homelessness and Downtown Streets Team. It was the perfect confluence of these reminders that led me to reflect on the title’s question in a more practical way than ever before. I’ve concluded that there are three main things, actually constituting a hierarchy, that I want to remember when meeting and greeting homeless people in my neighborhood every day.

Good: It’s Yours (to Give Away)

The first time I encountered the below quote, I was struck by something that I had never before realized. In the recent past, I’ve tried to quell my desire to give money away, as I learned that my actions could incentivize begging or that the money would be spent on substances– both of which scenarios only exacerbate the person’s long-term sufferings. But is the chance of this enough to justify withholding assistance?

On the other hand, the economist in me notices that money can be used much more efficiently than in-kind donations of things like food and even gift cards. For example, cash can be applied to clothing and rent whereas fast food gift cards are obviously limited. Finally, there was one question that I couldn’t ignore: If I have extra change in my purse after all my needs (and even most wants) have been met, would it truly be better for me to hold onto it?

 “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors: but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need… Another thing that annoys me is when people say ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is ‘But if I’d kept [it] I should probably have drunk it.’” — C.S. Lewis

There is a strange ring of justice here; one that utilitarian calculations cannot truly grasp. As the famous English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, “It is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.” So, if I do come to the point of question, may the benefit of the doubt be with homeless people and may I give that extra food or money which is mine– mine to give away.

And my genuine smile and wave too, yes, those are mine to give away as well.

Even Better: The Dignity of Work

But there is still something better; charity is only a temporary fix for a persisting problem. As Sandberg describes in the EconTalk above, restoring dignity through work is unquestionably the sustainable solution. The goal is not that homeless people will remain the object of our charity, but rather that we will come alongside them to help them walk the way out of homelessness. This is precisely where the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity go hand-in-hand. See Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (399)

The heart of solidarity is standing with one another through the trials and triumphs of life, essentially, recognizing our interdependence. The reason for both solidarity and subsidiarity are the same: human dignity. And part of human dignity is respecting the essential dignity of work. (For another great example in downtown LA, read Tattoos on the Heart.)

Best: You Need Them

Again, the dignity of work is wonderful, but there is still a prior wonder: the dignity of each human person. We need each other. We need our moms, our brothers, our friends, and we need the people in our city who are currently homeless. Each relationship is like an open door, allowing us to practice our human talents and to become even more ourselves than ever before. For a parting quote, I look to Pope Benedict:

“The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on…

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.”

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Kristin Collins on Genuine Love

Be forewarned that this is going to be a sentimental read 🙂

Sometimes we discover deep wisdom in the great books by great men and women; such are the blessings of tried-and-true tradition, or the “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton called it. But certain other times, we are lucky enough (and listen well enough) to find it over coffee and berry pancakes with our best friend. Kristin Collins is my best friend, and a few mornings ago, she (unknowingly) reminded me what genuine love means.

And because I wouldn’t be her BFF4EVER if I didn’t try to publicly embarrass her: when you fail at baking but taste sweet success in a food fight

I had to put the “genuine” in front of “love” because there is so much muddiness amidst the conflicting narratives we’re told these days. Genuine love does last forever, but only because it is a binding, daily decision (ah did someone say covenant?). Genuine love does inspire you to do great things (I mean look at this), but only because doing great things is a side-effect of wanting to make another person happy. Genuine love does mean becoming thoroughly vulnerable, but only because at the end of the day, you are two friends that see the same truth.

So in everyday life, genuine love looks a lot like being patient. Like holding yourself and those you love to the highest standard, but having mercy 70×7 times because no one is perfect.

It is relentless, when you ask your best friend (almost every night she’s home) if she wants to have a sleepover, even when she has rarely been able to the past seven years. It is embracing a sinner while denouncing a sin. It is sharing our small moments, because the present is the fullest gift we can give.

The bottom line is this: you are loved not because of what you do but because of who you are. Only then can we finally understand mercy– the over-abundant and unconditional form of love. The opposite delusion arises with the help of our falsely individualistic culture that removes us from the one place where we can best know ourselves– within our families. When the circumstances leave us with no answer for who we are, we are left to assign our worth to what we do. Unable to understand our personhood within the context of our family– think about how little brothers may always bring out our adventurous side and mothers, a passionate desire to be more hospitable– we are left jumping from place to place, dizzy since there is so much to  do and become distracted by.

This is why is is crucially important not to get caught up on a branch while trying to climb the tree. Work, business, and productivity are important things, but they are not the main thing (boy did I learn that the hard way this past semester). My dear Kristin reminded me that the real question I should be trying to answer is did you love?

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.


Additional reading: The Lesson that Took Me 20 Years to Learn

No Mere Mortals: A November Reflection

It is during the month of November, which begins with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day if you are familiar with the Roman Catholic feast days, that we remember our beloved departed. Though I have been so lucky as to never have experienced the passing of someone very near to me, there is one lesson that I always take away from these observances: love the people around you like there is no tomorrow. Because realistically, there may not be. If you hold it true that we are immortal souls housed in our mortal bodies (as I do), then there is a more profound occurrence than mere death in death and a more complex reality than mere life in life. In one of the truest, best and most beautiful passages that I have ever read, C.S. Lewis describes what a person who believes in eternity really sees when beholding the persons around him:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.

We must play.

But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

Or, in everyday English: let’s run the thrilling race of life together, knowing full well that we are headed toward eternal joy and glory (and puppies as my little brother likes to remind me).

Living Abroad Brought Me Home

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

It has been a full week since I kissed my studying and service semester in La República Dominicana adios, flew smoothly through a 10-hour travel day, and crossed the threshold of my good old Wisconsin home for the first time in five months. I had told myself earlier that I would resist the urge to pen one of those “How Studying Abroad Changed My Life For Ever & Ever” posts, since the Internet (or at least just my Facebook feed) is overly indulged with them; all preaching essentially the same “carpe diem” thing. Yes, you should go study abroad! Your life will never be the same (obviously)!

But these next few paragraphs will be about something quite distinct: how spending five months in a beautiful yet developing country turned out to be just what I needed. Because I didn’t find what I needed there.

The central question that made itself at home in the depths of my mind throughout the entire five months was “why am I here?” And before I am misunderstood, I must emphasize that Encuentro Dominicano was an incredible opportunity that I continue to be 100% indebted to for revealing to me the beauty of service and community. Even more, these past few months could be viewed as a rapid succession of thrilling adventures, in which the Comunidad 19 accomplished feats we had scarcely previously imagined, while doing our part to leave our temporary home better than we found it. I was inexplicably drawn to the service-learning program in La República Dominicana, but it continually bothered me that I could not quite put my finger on why I was there.

Seeking out the answer relentlessly, I stumbled upon the “little” reasons. I was here to learn the patient art of living in community with 15 to-be-friends; I was here to be an older sister to Caoli and Carelin, my siblings in the campo; I was here to belt out “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the bright smiles of our Haitian school and teach them the English words for their favorite animals while a cuddly 2-year old was cradled at my hip; I was here to revel in the glamour of the open, glittering sea and to fail miserably at salsa dancing.

But by the time I had about three-fourths of the semester under my belt, I found in myself a desire that shocked me beyond belief, truly. Clara Elizabeth Jace just wanted to go home. This was astonishing because up until this summer, when someone would ask me where home is or where I am from, I took pride in explaining that I have moved a lot in my life and don’t really feel right calling just one place home. I was the independent, free-spirited wild child who wanted to discover and possess every aspect of life, intimately. And we all know that those kind of people are bitten by wanderlust and were made to explore the wide world rather than end each God-given day by watching Netflix at home in their suffocatingly comfortable beds. What was wrong with me? I became haunted by this aching desire to return home in order to carry out my unfinished business, business that was nothing more than a resolution to be a better person, both professionally and personally, to those who were ordained to remain in my life for longer than just five months. I especially couldn’t wait to start being a better daughter and older sister after relearning the value of family through the campo immersions. There is no denying the marvelous natural beauty of the Dominican Republic and of Misión ILAC (please believe me that some of my favorite nights were going on jogs around their tropical plant-enveloped trail) and it’s friendly culture. But while I was happy, my restlessness kept my thoughts turned homeward.

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Living abroad taught me how to be thankful.  I had this intellectual sense of thankfulness before, where I knew instinctively that I needed to practice thankfulness in order to be happy, but it was only habituated for the obvious things– I was thankful when I had a major victory in school, pushed my limits on those evening runs, or enjoyed a fabulous night on the town with friends. When not only those things (which did actually appear in their Dominican form), but the general order and cleanliness I was accustomed to in the United States, every single one of my friends, and most of my material possessions were stripped away for those five months, I had to discover newer, “smaller” things to be thankful for. My list (yep, actually a note on my phone): the lull of the fans, yuca, the rocking chairs, the spiral staircases to reach the rooftop terraces, plantains, la bandera, the characters of the campo, Sunday mass in Spanish, the comunidad and our awesome teachers/friends, familiar books, bachata and merengue dancing, the powerful sun, childhood songs I had nearly forgotten, technology such as Skype and handwritten letters, spontaneous adventures due to the gauguas…the list is extensive while not nearly exhaustive. Currently resting on my peaceful back porch in the States, it may be said that my thankfulness count has increased exponentially. I notice the birds, plants, and whistling wind as if I were encountering them for the first time. We truly aren’t aware of how good we have it here.

Living abroad taught me how to understand beauty. And that is absolutely, inextricably linked to practicing thankfulness. My individual aesthetic ascribes beauty to a certain sophisticated elegance, for example, on the rainy days my heart wanders back towards the seductive wisdom, history and art of the museums in Rome, the lofty cathedrals of sacred Israel, and the rolling French countryside in which I picnicked on white wine and fresh bread last summer, surrounded by my family and friends. Though the Dominican Republic undeniably possesses an intriguing history and abundance of culture, our service-learning program revealed a novel kind of beauty to me. In particular, I was returned back to the basics. Though I was admittedly out of my comfort-zone in the simplicity of the campo, I only had to raise my eyes to admire the sublime mountain range that watches over the houses. Though the road was not paved and we didn’t have running water, I soon began to see the beauty in the careful manner in which my campo mom, Olga, thoroughly cleaned her house every day. Though there were no books to be found, I saw how the kindness and piety that was displayed by countless members of the community is purer than any worldly knowledge. I could continue on with precious pearls of experiences, but let it suffice to say that the gift of simplicity revealed itself to me. All the while, I still did not lose sight of my more learned loves and made it my personal mission to leave Carelin and Caoli with their own petite, classical library.

Living abroad taught me what home is. With my renewed understanding of thankfulness and beauty, I could not wait to rush back and behold the familiar as if it were magical once again, to treat my family and neighborhood like we were a real community. Though far away from our homes proper, our experience had been saturated with experiences of community and family. I have long held that one ought to practice the ability to cultivate a home wherever one is planted, no matter how transiently. I had not legitimately put that belief into practice until taking up residence in the Dominican Republic for those months, and I now realize the poverty of that view. What makes home “home” is that it’s irreplaceable, unable to be replicated. Sure, enough time might suffice to reconcile the disparity between strangeness and familiarity, but the object of the majority of travel is to return home. With new eyes, a rejuvenated perspective, and a new treasure chest of memories and friendships, yes, but nevertheless to return home. I profess that never have I been more enchanted with my home, more thankful for my country, or more in love with my family. I have my thrilling, difficult, interesting, uncomfortable, crazy and refreshing semester abroad to thank for that. Living abroad brought me home.

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

6: Greatest Love

I had the decency to read Thoreau’s Walden this summer, while stationed in a canvas hammock under a great white oak and a swamp ash. As you might imagine, the literary experience was narrated by the rush of the bending, breezed pondweed and buzzing dragonflies. God, nature, commerce, technology, time, people, conversation, labor, etc. were all fair game, but I must say that I especially loved his eloquent familiarity with solitude. My busy, tired brain was justly reminded of the enrichment in quiet and isolation. Having been familiar with that, it seems fitting that we study his words on the polar opposite (or is it?), the bond of friends:

Friendship

By: Henry David Thoreau

I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.

I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.

I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.

For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.

A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
To reverence.

But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favorite retreat,
Of loveliness;

When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
Eternally;

And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;

In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
Resistlessly.

______

Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong

Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
Insep’rably.

I would claim that the only thing more magnificent than nature is man himself. Hopefully you enjoyed that gem of a poem, happy Monday!