I am a skeptic, I have a difficult time with faith, and there aren’t many things I believe wholeheartedly that I can’t judge based on my own experience, whether spiritual or temporal. There are some truths I hold to, nonetheless, and one of them is the mutability of human nature. I believe we have the ability, perhaps particularly so in this mortal life, to change who we are fundamentally, for better and for worse – and often both at the same time. I also believe that we can help each other change, in fact, those two things together sum up a good portion of what we are here on earth to do, and what we are most fulfilled by doing, as I see it: 1) work to grow ourselves and, 2) help each other grow.
Here is my problem:
What happens when we are dealing with people who are so mired in their circumstances that our experiences together don’t seem to help? I’ll give a few examples of what I am thinking about. I’ve worked with children and youth in high risk situations on and off for several years. One thing that is very difficult to break through is the depression in children and teenagers who know that their chances of making much of themselves in life are slim to none. Granted, some people can come through even exceptionally bad circumstances and make a life that is happy and fulfilling. Many, however, do not. Teenagers in low socioeconomic areas, particularly in high-gang activity areas, know this. I remember working with one kid who had been doing pretty well through his junior high school years. But in his second year of high school he just lost it. He stopped playing sports, his grades plummeted, he pretty much dropped out of life. After many attempts to get through to him, I once had an open, honest talk with him in which he told me that he just didn’t see the point in making much effort any more, because everyone else in his life had dropped out too. His brothers and cousins and friends were in gangs, some of them had been killed, many were in jail or clearly headed in that direction. He couldn’t see, despite some serious adult intervention on his behalf, how he could be different. This wasn’t laziness, it was an acknowledgement of reality.
Another example from yesterday, which is what got me thinking about this issue again: my husband and I know a family that has difficulties with their younger son, who has been in and out of high school for several years, and now he is nearly 21 and still has not finished. In the last 2 years, in particular, he has become severely depressed and nonresponsive to life. He wanders the streets and doesn’t go to the few classes he needs to get his GED. We have known this family a few years, we have seen the son go in and out of the hospital, talked with him, given him blessings, given his mother blessings. His mother is at a point where she doesn’t feel like she can take it any more – she can’t get her son to take care of his basic human needs, and she is tired of doing these things for him, but she doesn’t want to put him out on the street.
What do we do? My question is not, whom should we help? Nor is it, how can we judge who needs our time and energy? We are fallible, we can’t judge where someone is in life, and we probably all have experiences in which we know people who didn’t appear to be getting their lives in order who later on will change and testify to the love and support that sustained them in their difficult times. We all need help, we all deserve it, because life is struggle. My question is, what do we do for those who seem to have given up, especially young people? How do we get them engaged in life? Is it just a problem of brain chemistry – are some people depressed and therefore the best help is medicine? (full disclosure: I have siblings and other relatives with chronic depression, and in no way do I mean to diminish the force of it, and I acknowledge that brain chemistry matters a great deal in who we are and become).
What do we do when it seems we can’t help each other grow/change/deal with problems?