the secret reason I was burning out

I’m linking up today with Amy Peterson in celebration of her book release! Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Change the World is very much on my wish list. Spiritual memoir, social justice learnings, beautiful writing: check.

For my own part, I’m not going to claim that I won’t forever be on some misguided quest or another. Here are some thoughts for all of us along such a journey.

I had always thought Santa hats were a dumb charity item. In the week leading up to the church’s famous Christmas dinner for our homeless and poor neighbors, one of the parishioners had dropped them off. “For the kids or whatever.” I thanked the well-meaning person but grumbled in my mind; I’m frustrated by this dollar-store brand of Christmastime charity. My feet shared the under-desk space with the trash bag of hats.

There were indeed a good number of kids at the dinner, and I plopped Santa hats on the heads of a brother and sister, thinking about how the hats would be in the real trash by tomorrow. A nearby adult asked for one, and I blithely passed it over to her. Then, at least in my memory, I was suddenly surrounded by twenty grabbing hands. Someone yanked a few hats out of my bag. “They’re for the kids,” I kept repeating, trying to hand them to the closest kids or parents I could see, but all the grabbers were adults. The hats quickly disappeared and some of those who hadn’t gotten them were angry with me, kept asking, examined the bag. Maybe I would’ve just been sad and a little banged up if one of these people I’d never met hadn’t spat, “You are a racist.” The utter nonsense of that statement, given that almost everyone who’d gotten a hat was the same race as the speaker, somehow made it crystal-clear what I had just seen. It was the purest embodiment of greed I’d ever encountered, everyone reaching to take before they knew what they were taking, snarling at their rivals, this man bitter and victimized when the trinkets went to the children.

At that statement I just dropped the bag and walked away. A friend (who happened to be homeless) offered to talk, but I needed to be alone. I needed to be angry that people had come to abuse an event so lovingly crafted by my church. I needed to be sad that anyone could be as upset as my name-caller while surrounded by Christmas carols and a feast. I needed to hate, hate the systems that had trained poor people to grab whatever they could from strangers at Christmastime, because there would be nothing the rest of the year, because these one-off events kept them nameless and faceless to us, because they knew that the Santa hats had been pocket change to the person who bought them.

I have never liked Santa hats, and I never will.

People who volunteer or work for nonprofits often feel like we’re not supposed to share these things. You know that someone will ignore everything else you’ve said and use your story to confirm their stereotypes of others. And people don’t like when nonprofit workers complain about their jobs; and you are grateful, in the end, for these moments. They’re reality checks; they’re empathy builders; they’re the moments that transform.

For a long time a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my nonprofit work. I couldn’t have told my Santa hat story a few years ago, when it happened, because I was afraid of scaring off donors and afraid that my liberal friends would police my tone; but I also couldn’t have told it because I couldn’t quite fit all those terrible feelings into my picture of myself and the world. It wasn’t OK with me to just be upset; it wasn’t OK with me that others might hear the story and think I’d been naive or uncaring; it wasn’t OK with me that the problems I encountered in that moment were so much bigger than me, my actions, and my organization. I needed to only tell hopeful stories because hope and realism couldn’t coexist in my picture of who I was and how I mattered.

Instead of telling these hard stories, we just say, over and over, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s worth it. Over and over we want to appear strong or nonchalant, and hope others can be convinced to join our work. It’s worth it, we say, and we do mean it, even as we’re losing energy, becoming jaded, burning out. We tell the good stories back to ourselves and stuff the bad ones away. Or worse, we tell ourselves we’re too privileged to deserve these stories, that admitting we were hurt, frightened, or surprised by something constitutes some sort of betrayal of someone else’s greater pain or fear.

That is a lie, and we need to tell each other so. And we need to tell these stories. We need our friends to know what we go through. We need our donors to know that we can’t fix people. We need our volunteer recruits to know what they’re getting into.

And we need to know: that our careers don’t have to be made up only of stories with morals. That even the upsetting realities we face are better than the pleasant fictions others dwell in. That the things we encounter have made us better, stronger. That we, as people, matter more than the roles we play in our organizations.

For some of us, the difference between excitement and burnout is as simple as the difference between the stories we’re holding, and the stories we think we’re supposed to tell about ourselves.

May we have the courage to ask someone for the stories in their hands.


one day’s worth of life

My alarm jolts me awake, heart racing. It’s been like that lately.

After the usual shower I plod my way down the stairs. I’m up earlier than usual. Most of the time my housemate Brendan makes the coffee, which is lovely, but there’s another kind of pleasure in making it myself, the smell of the beans and the precise measuring. I’m always thankful for my cup of coffee, I don’t know how.

Even after a cup, though, I sit down to put on my shoes and my eyes close involuntarily, reminding me I didn’t sleep well at all. Yesterday was a hard day for living with people – one of the hardest. The conflict still hangs in the air.

I’m five minutes late because I slept five minutes longer. It’s a reliable 22 minutes to walk to work in the winter, when I keep up a good pace to stay warm. This is the best way to start the day, outside, feeling the city I live in, using my legs and praying. There’s always so much to see – today tiny snowflakes are dusting everything and it looks just like powdered sugar.

I say hi to people on the sidewalk. There’s a lady on the phone next to her two wiggly toddlers, and I am thinking how beautiful they are when she screams at the girl to “get the f*** over here”, picks her up by the jacket, and throws her on the other side of the sidewalk hard enough to leave a bruise. The girl starts wailing and I walk on by, wondering like always what I should do in these situations; coming to the conclusion like always that there’s really nothing. These episodes are common in my neighborhood and I always pray for the kids. I feel small.

I get there after the Food Bank truck leaves but just in time to actually move the stuff with Joe. I messed up our order for the first time, an understandable mistake, but I still feel bad. Worse because Joe doesn’t say anything except to list all the stuff he’ll have to go buy. There’s no one to be mad at but myself; of course I offer to go with him to the store. He’s playing country music in his car, and I want to cry for how much I miss home.

Like I said, I’m tired. The tire on the dolly is flat for the twelfth time and why the hell doesn’t someone get that fixed? Usually I am glad to help move the hundreds of pounds of food, feel the strain in my arms and create order out of our little stock room; but today when I drop a box of margarine I swear and just stand there, all my energy fighting the urge to step over the box and walk out, walk home. Why do we even give people margarine? It’s not a food. They don’t deserve it, they’re not looking for work. Ugly thoughts, I don’t like myself at all today. Help.

I feed myself lunch but quelling my hunger does nothing for this foul mood. I spend the rest of the afternoon looking for the motivation to send some e-mails, mostly staring at nothing instead. Today it seems pointless. Whether the e-mail gets sent or not, things are never going to change, people are just self-absorbed and messed up. I’m done with the homeless people, done with the church people, done with myself.

I finally get out of there at four. I’m glad to at least be walking home; I think better on the move. East Genesee Street slides by and I’m not really looking – until I’m almost back at that one bus stop where I saw a little girl being abused. I saw a little girl being abused. I haven’t even thought about that girl in the seven hours since I passed her, not consciously at least, and suddenly this fans my sullenness into white-hot anger. I’m angry at the woman hurting her child. Angry at whoever hurt the woman. Angry at the apathy all around me all the time, people going about their junk food and their Netflix and their politics and money so they don’t have to touch these people and feel their pain. I wish there was someone I could fight. I’m walking fast up this hill; I was really cold before, but now I’m sweating in these layers.

In a couple hours I’ll go on a Tuesday-evening just-because date with my boyfriend. I’ll worry that I’m not very fun today, but he can always get me to relax somehow. I’ll sit across the table and tell him my ugly day and wonder again where he came from, how he got so caring and intelligent and lighthearted; we’ll make Rice Krispie treats and play with the marshmallows and be sickeningly happy together. My heart will be big again.


Do you know, do you know how beautiful it all is, do you see at all? So many days in this work I think my heart has shattered out across the whole world and I’m just too broken anymore. But then I walk out into the world and I start to find the little pieces, one at a time, here the tracks of birds’ feet in the snow, there a backpack bouncing wildly, it’s happy to be running home off the bus.

Do you ever sit and wonder at how much tragedy and how much that is good and true all exist together in this little space, the earth? You can’t name evil until you know what we’ve lost, the wound of it, but is there anything more right and whole than redemption? It’s all right there, soaring sweeping glory next to black despair next to a holy cup of coffee so near to innocence betrayed.

It’s too much, really it is, none of us is God and thank goodness, I couldn’t stand to really see it all like he does. I only occupy so much space and my heart can only stretch so far. But we choose our worlds like never before and I’m not going to wrap myself up in a car for when it’s cold and a radio for when I’m bored and a smartphone for when I don’t want to deal with people. I’m going to fight to choose the real physical world where all the stuff happens, with the blue-and-yellow house on the corner and the stray cats and boring conversations and homeless people muttering nonsense and babies with hats on. That’s where I help feed people, where my choice of transportation affects others, where I’m falling in love. It’s so miraculous God couldn’t stay out of it, he came here and lived and died for the beauty and pain of a girl on a sidewalk, and all the people passing her by.

welfare and reform

There’s no good way to say a lot of things about poverty. You don’t want to make generalizations about groups of people. Even if it’s mostly accurate, a generalization can too easily germinate into a stereotype, an ugly presupposition.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We nonprofit people love to talk about systemic change and removing barriers and how to fix government programs and schools blahdeeblah; but in the end, everyone’s story is their own story.

I’ve been invited/instructed to go to something called a “poverty simulation” in a few weeks. From what I know of it, the idea is that one starts off the evening/”month” with a certain family size and amount of money, and then goes to different stations (the pretend department of social services, the pretend grocery store) to try to make the family budget last. It may very well turn out to be an edifying experience, but initially I feel wary.

I don’t want to go to a poverty simulation because I am living in poverty. Not like a flippant use of the word “poor”; like I am well below the United States poverty line by any standard, and am trying to end the year with a small chunk of money with which to start grad school (first month’s rent, etc.). I have done/am doing the things I expect I will do at the simulation: navigated an application for food stamps, tried to figure out how to use the groceries available at the food pantry, existed on mostly rice and peanut butter for a few days til the next check comes in, weighed the costs and benefits of a $2 bus ride versus a 2-mile walk when I felt sick. I live in a questionable neighborhood, work a lot of evenings, and have no good way to transport a large amount of groceries (or anything else) on my own.

I hope this doesn’t come off as some kind of bizarre boasting. These are just some of the frustrating difficulties of life in poverty that you might not always think about, and that they might be able to simulate. If it gets people started thinking about some of the complexities of poverty, the simulation will have done some good.

But I sort of thought that joining The Lower Class would make me understand more than it has. Notwithstanding my education and other benefits of a well-off upbringing, notwithstanding all the help the nice church people give us, I thought that I would blur the line between Us and Them and have a better grasp of the problem (poverty) and the solution(?). How would it feel to be on food stamps? What would I do with the tiny allowance I gave myself after I bought toiletries out of it?

It feels fine to be on food stamps. They give you a little debit card that works just like any other debit card. You can buy pretty much anything edible with the money, and you know you’re not going to go hungry. And out of my little “discretionary” fund, I have bought a couple of clothing items and several burritos with friends. Unexpected things come up, the money runs out, I wish there were more, I wait to buy anything til the next 15th. And everything turns out OK. I am happy. I know I will get out of poverty.

This is why it’s hard to talk about poverty: because poverty – long-term, systemic, suck-the-life-out-of-a-city poverty – is not about money. Urban education is not about schools. And violence is not about guns. We want the world to be concrete and straightforward; then we can pick it apart and put it back together. We can study it and model it. We can simulate it.

What you can’t simulate, and what I would never experience no matter how long I lived on this income, is growing up like They did. It’s being abused, physically, verbally, or sexually; it’s no one telling you to do your homework; it’s a string of a parent’s significant others rotating through the house. You can’t simulate a lack of life skills like cooking and budgeting; a culture that derides education; or the desperation for love and attention that drives teenagers to become sexually active, birth control and public health campaigns be damned.

And the fuel driving the whole cycle around and around is the last thing you could ever simulate. You learn it every day, over and over, from all of those crappy situations above. It’s the thing I see everywhere, it will suffocate you if you’re not careful: the feeling – no, the absolute belief – that, powerless and unloved, you are utterly worthless.

Could it be that a poverty simulation is one more thing to keep us from having to face this? If I happen to be right, if that sense of worthlessness is the root of the toxic, self-perpetuating, all-destroying, cancerous poverty all these charitable people can’t seem to do anything about – how would we have to respond?

I think we would have to stop talking about poverty and money and school systems, and start loving people, one at a time. There is no gathering all the people and putting them through a self-worth workshop. If people are going to love themselves (and their kids and their neighbors), I think someone else will have to love them first. I think it’s a matter of looking a person in the eye and remembering their name. It’s inviting someone to your house for dinner and calling them when they don’t show up to make sure they’re OK. It’s forgiveness and patience and a thousand other very, very costly things. Because people are very, very costly.

But I think most people, the ostensible problem-solvers I mean, would truly honestly rather keep pouring money down the government and non-profit drain; keep holding benefit dinners and publishing research papers; keep finding ways around the poor and their individual bodies and souls, needy, sinful, beautiful, broken, precious as we all are. I think the policy makers would rather continue the debate between compassionless conservatism (“the poor need to take responsibility for themselves”) and condescending liberalism (“the poor can’t help themselves”) because it’s too hard to admit that real people are more complicated than all that.

I hope not. I hope we believe people should have their basic needs met and their situations improved, not to lower the crime rate or the welfare bill, but because the people themselves have intrinsic value. I hope we find a way to talk about poverty that includes poor people, all their raw ability to help themselves, and all the ways they need others’ help. May we remember those who built us up, who taught us what we were worth. May gratitude to the lover of our souls give us power to love someone else’s.



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