By Becky De Oliveira … Recently, I visited a beautiful big city with a few of the all-too-common big city problems on display in big cities everywhere. Addiction. Poverty. Homelessness. Mental illness. Wealth disparity. Violence. Filth. On a street with all these problems on display simultaneously, I saw a young man, shirtless, passed out against a wall on a pile of garbage, the sun beating full on his chest and face. He was pale, like me. I’ve had skin cancer. I see the dermatologist often; she knows my kids’ names. “That guy is going to get fried,” I said aloud, from the passenger seat of the car. What I should do, I thought, is cover him up with something. What? I didn’t have anything. I could go somewhere and buy something (a thin blanket maybe?) and come back. But I didn’t. I tried to envision stopping the car on this particular street, getting out. There was no way to imagine it that didn’t seem extremely ill-advised. Even driving too slowly tempted fate. This was the kind of street you blast though, eyes fixed a hundred yards ahead, windows rolled tight, jaw clenched. In and out, thankful you have somewhere else you can go tonight.
I developed a series of arguments to support my intuition, most of them pretty compelling. Maybe the man would not want to be covered with a blanket. His friends (?)—a menacing group arranged in various alarming poses—might take issue with my covering him. Perhaps he would awaken of his own accord sooner than I imagined and stagger off to find shade. He was a grown man, not a toddler. He’d kept himself alive this long, without any assistance from me. Not a single friend or family member would agree that I should intervene in this situation, fearing for my safety. We can blame them. Or how about my relative powerlessness within the, um, system? You know, the social system. Or the system that governs the universe. I can’t fix anything. I’m not anyone’s savior. Duh. Sunburn is really probably the very least of this guy’s problems. His problems, judging from the setup on that street, are vast and unsolvable. Thinking about them makes my head hurt. A melanoma, I think, not without a twinge of guilt, would probably be a mercy. Argument with self quite easily settled. Drive on by, end up somewhere far more beautiful and soothing to the soul. Fly home the next day, never to see that man again. I went to a Big City and all I brought home was this anecdote—a should-have story—of the kind that Christians so often use to illustrate all the ways in which they (we) fail to live up to our calling.
In Bible study classes, on social media, during the course of friendly conversation, Christians tend to exchange thoughts and opinions about what we, as Christians, should be doing. It is never the thing we are doing. I can’t even give a numeric estimate of how many Saturday morning discussion groups have segued from whatever the topic happens to be to the topic that is really on everyone’s mind: What we should be doing. Instead of sitting here, we should be out on the city streets helping the poor and homeless. But we never are. We should be the most loving, amazing people anyone has ever met. For my money, I’d say some of us are—but those of us lamenting the state of Christians will never admit to that. We (they? us?) are not living out the true mission.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree that Christians have a certain duty to humanity that other people don’t have. My humanity compels me to compassion, not a specific belief system into which I was born and have been educated. When I look at someone on the street and wonder what I should do, I’m not wondering what I should do as a Christian. I mean as a person. A woman. An American. An individual with a certain amount of problem-solving ability, under the right circumstances. And yeah, sure, also as a Christian. Problems will not, usually, solve themselves. I don’t believe in magic. None of us do. We know that we are the hands and feet. There are things we could (should) be doing.
But how do we decide what they are, let alone begin doing them rather than talking about doing them?
I am well aware that many readers of this magazine do an enormous amount of good—practical, tangible deeds that require a lot from them, financially and emotionally. I do these kinds of things too, at least sometimes. I do not do every good deed that occurs to me on impulse, nor even everyone I think about carefully. Is this a problem? Sure. I try to be loving and non-judgmental, but I do not always succeed at that either.
One thing I think about occasionally is how we are all at very different places in our lives, with widely varying capacities—financially, emotionally, temporally. The discussions about what we “should” be doing rarely take into account individual capacity. They are one-fit magic bullet solutions. If we were all doing X, things would be better.
I believe it is important to consider your actions from the vantage point of the future: How will this action appear to me in ten years? To what extent does it contribute to helping me be the kind of person I would like to be? From that point of view, constantly talking about what you should do rather than doing it is not very efficient. But it is also important to communicate your feelings, even those of regret, and maybe these conversations help move us, if ever so slightly, in the right direction. Keep trying to close that gap between should have and did.
–Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral candidate in research methods at the University of Northern Colorado. Email her at: [email protected]