Friday, April 13, 2007

We Have to Floss Our Own Teeth

I know a woman, a single mom with a slew of emotional and health troubles, who has teenage son with learning disabilities and major behavior problems. She can’t hold down a job or get her son to school. If it weren’t for her landlords, relatives who long since stopped expecting rent, they’d be on the street. Their lives are completely unmanageable, and yet this woman loves her son and wants to keep him from making her mistakes, like dropping out of high school. Her concern shows up in loud arguments from his failing grades, to his personal hygiene. She even sneaks into his room when he’s asleep to floss his teeth!

In that instance, it’s easy to see she’s gone too far. When I suggested that her son should reap natural consequences from his behavior, like a cavity, she countered that she can’t afford a dentist visit, and none of them accept MediCal. So, what’s the answer? It’s complicated.

Our compassionate natures make us want to make life right for the hurting person. We do everything we can to “help them out,” make them change, or help them change, and still, frustratingly, despite all the time, emotional energy, and money we invest, new problems quickly replace the old, because their behavior doesn’t change.

The pattern of being too involved in someone else’s life––called codependence––might be easy to see from a distance, especially when it’s as dramatic as flossing a teen’s teeth while he’s asleep. It’s not as easy to spot when it’s part of your own life, when someone you care for deeply engages in destructive behavior.

Confronted with our helplessness, we ask ourselves, if we can’t keep our spouse from leaving, our uncle from drinking, our cousin from losing a job, or our neighbor from being evicted, how can we possibly make our communities and our world places free from violence, hunger and hatred?

This is where the gritty reality of faith comes in. Faith isn’t a refrigerator magnet with a smiling cherub, or a crucifix in the entryway. Faith is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that God can intervene in lives that seem beyond help and beyond hope. Faith is admitting that we are powerless to control or change another person’s life, and are powerless to control our own. Faith is trusting that there is good in this world, and that if we are willing to do the hard work of breaking free from our destructive behaviors––even if our pattern is that of helping or caring too much––that positive change is possible.

Faith is prayer. Prayer that those who are hurting will get the help they need. Prayer to know our limits in offering that help. Prayer that sees beyond a person’s actions and holds up their humanity. Prayer that desires a full and whole life for those who have harmed us with their destructive actions. Prayer that allows us to let go of our hurts and to forgive others as well as ourselves.

Faith requires that we don’t turn a blind eye to suffering. Faith also requires us to remember that we are not God. We simply cannot carry all the world’s pain without being consumed by it. We need to place those burdens before God, over and over again, trusting that good is stronger than evil and that love is stronger than death.

I can offer the stressed out single mom a ride to parenting class, I can invite the unruly teen to the movies with our kids once in a while. I can even drive him to the dentist. But, I can’t make him change anymore than his mother can. I can pray for them, that they might be open to God’s work in their lives. And I will remember that in this life, we all have to floss our own teeth.

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