“There’s a future in strenuous wholeness”
(Ps. 37:38, The Message)
Our natural track is brokenness. Without a strenuous effort in the other direction, we will find ourselves selfish, unfulfilled, angry, hopeless, fractured, fragmented, broken (and without even a hint of a will to put things back together again). All of it happens slowly, almost unnoticeably, as if strand after strand of an invisible web is being spun around us, holding us just enough to make us forget we are falling apart. But its very invisibility is death to us because by its nature, it hides the thing that is wrong. And without naming what is wrong, what chance do we have for ever getting something right?
I was at the jail today and I heard a story from one of the women. She had been quiet during most of the group session, her arms curled around her thin body like a life ring holding her together. And then all at once she came to life as she told her story: her mother and whatever family she knew were all addicts and she had been abandoned to foster care at a young age. “Once the system got you, it doesn’t let go,” she said fiercely. At age 15 she wound up in juvie. Just before that, she had met a guy who was twelve years older than she was. And he loved her, of course. As evidence of his love, he posed as her stepdad and was able to adopt her so she didn’t have to live in detention or foster care. Soon after, her relationship with him went bad, but it was her fault, she insisted, her fault because of “smoking the rent money” with her crack habit and not appreciating how much he had done for her. She had a baby this past January, but things had fallen apart. “I chose crack over my own baby. My own baby girl who needs me, who matters more than anyone in the world. I chose crack over her. If she can’t get me to stop, what will? So what is there left for me? Nothing but death. That’s it.” Just over twenty years old and nothing left but death.
White, well-to-do, educated, religiously observant men and women can very easily live and be successful and not have to see stories like this. Layers of privilege and indifference have wound their threads around us, and we are so used to seeing through them we may not even know they are there. But the point, I believe, is not that we are guilted into serving at jails, or even that we think of working with the poor as some kind of trendy “currency” in the conversation about social justice, but that we remind ourselves again and again that we are not and never will be whole unless we make room for people unlike ourselves. If nothing else will convince us to act like this young woman’s life matters, then maybe a selfish sense of our own incompleteness will.
Hearing this story and many others like it has not made me whole in the sense that it brought some kind of once-and-forall completion to my life. It has made me whole only in that it has complicated parts of my life that I think very much needed to be complicated and has unwound from me a false web I did not know was there, revealing the truth of my own brokenness. And in this place I question even using the pain of someone else’s life experience to make a point, especially a point that would seem to paint me on the “right” side of the story, the hero who listens to the stories of the oppressed. But deeper than the shell of my own pride and mixed motives, there is the love of a God who calls me relentlessly to wholeness. God reminds me of a sobering and comforting truth. There is no “right” side, only the side in which we are all willing to pull down whatever it is that keeps us from each other and recognize that we are all on the same side of the story: the broken side.
For me, to pursue wholeness like my life depends on it is to fight every day again–to claw that invisible web away from my face, my hands, my ears, my heart–and refuse to give up until I finally hook my fingers into the web and begin to pull it away. And I can begin to rip off that layer of invisibleness through which I don’t see the suffering of others simply because I’m busy and tired and most of all because I don’t have to. Only then may I begin to realize that just barely beneath the surface of my indifference there is a jail full of women who need to know that life isn’t over at age twenty. And there is a church full of people who need to know that they are slowly suffocating to death beneath invisible layers of brokenness that they cannot name because of all the thousands and thousands of stories they have never heard.
We have God’s word–pursuing wholeness will never be anything but strenuous. But God is as good as his promise that there is most definitely a future in it.