Monday, April 07, 2014


Reading Nicholas Vrooman’s account of the re-peopling of the prairies after the human clearances due to smallpox, failure of the buffalo, immigrants, political balking, and military pressure, I kept thinking how very little people change -- this is not a new or great thought.  But it can be useful.  I’m always attracted to people pushed out on the edge, whether it’s bad kids from marginal families or just folks who are different to the point of being a little scary.  Philosophically, one might lump all these people into the Other.

Always risky, those Others, because you can’t tell what they want, you don’t know whether they really understand what you say to them or vice versa.  If you hang with them, you risk picking up their stigma.  On the one hand it’s convenient to pretend they don’t exist, like the Little Shell Band that people kept mistaking for people they were not, because those Others were not the problem of government or justice -- someone Else needed to take care of them.  

Today we’re so used to homeless people in the street that they’ve become invisible to us.  In cities you see people in suits calmly step over them prone on the sidewalk.  Even more invisible are boys at risk, the ones who have learned to hide for their own safety, from predators, from cops, from reporters, from social workers.  From people like me, who wish them well and wonder how to relate.  Once we figure out that they are actually there, more usually in the city than in the country, it’s like a natural history project, looking for some small well-camouflaged creatures, learning their habitat.

Boys have always been loose among us, very handy for small errands and work in small spaces.  Their fate relates to economics, which are entwined with families.  Today’s family-smashing world has released boys like a cloud of particles around the planet.  Even in what seems like stable neighborhoods, our assumptions about how a family operates can be deeply deceived and destructive.  Weak egos mixed with substance abuse and media fantasies can turn both parents into destructive robots who raise kids whose only hope of survival is alienation and viciousness.  Shocked?  Good.  

So having anything to do with such families and kids is a counter-intuitive idea.  Anyway, they don’t want you.  The traditional way of handling them has been to write them off, not to waste time on them, to pretend they are “outside the pale.”  The pale was once a fence (palings) around communities to keep them out.  We still do that -- walled developments.  Admission by application only.  No kids.  So the excluded form their own small tribes.

Suppose you do find yourself interacting with kids at risk.  You will be hurt -- they strike out.  You will not receive gratitude -- they expect that you want something in return, probably something they can’t afford to give, that you are trying to pull them into some kind of bondage.  Indeed, that’s often the case -- loving bondage -- and recognizing that impulse in oneself can be painful.  The day your limits for rejection are exceeded and you find yourself cursing and wishing to do damage -- well, that’s the day you realize you’re human and the kids are not so “Other” after all.  Nor are they stuffed animals.

There will be blackmail, extortion, and other emotion-games on both sides.  Any request will be met by attacks on your selfish narcissism.  Any gifts will be followed by demands for more, or sometimes contempt for what was meant to be appreciated.  You’ll be issued a lot of instructions but if you follow them, they will slide around so you’re in the wrong anyway.  Aren’t your own kids like that?

A lot of things will be backwards.  With ordinary stable kids it might work to do the Skinner reward and punishment thing:  get good grades and I’ll buy you a bicycle; keep acting up and you’re grounded.  With risky edge kids this doesn’t work: they’ll just steal a bike and climb out the window to ride off on it.  To pull in a sick, drugging, abused, starved, filthy, ragged kid off the street and make him promise to not turn tricks anymore (or whatever else the problem behavior might be) is backwards.  If you see that he’s tricking, doping, stealing or whatever, what works is first to provide safety, then food and meds, friendship or at least listening, etc. etc., something worth doing,  and then he won’t NEED to do all the bad stuff.  Then the part that’s hardest is getting him to forgive himself and stop believing he deserved all the suffering.  People would rather be wicked than admit they are helpless.

But a kid doesn’t exist in a vacuum: this is not a world where one kid and one helper face each other across a negotiating table.  We all have our communities -- both helper and helped.   Others are involved, maybe jealous, maybe competing, maybe having their own reasons to influence the situation.  “Don’t listen to her -- she’s FEMALE.”  “Don’t listen to him -- he’s OLD.”  “Don’t get involved with these people because they’ll betray you.”  “All this sentimental talk is false; it’s a lure; it’s a con; they aren’t strong enough to save you anyway.  They’ll be gone tomorrow.”

And there will come a time when indeed you have to give it up.  People age; resources diminish; if there is a sponsoring organization, they will lose interest; certainly the media will suddenly turn on the very cause they were promoting because only the new is news.  Even religions get tired of outreach and doing good.  

A church took on a Vietnamese refugee family, putting them in a little house that had been left to the church as a bequest.  The first few months were wonderful.  People visited, took food, were proud.   The newspapers wrote stories.  Then the city got involved because the house was not up to the code for renters and the money that was needed increased, plus the work of supervising contractors.  The family, once it was no longer numb with loss, began to take hold in American society, began to be ambitious and want to send the older kids to college.  Would the church help?  They needed a car for the father to get to work.  Would the church help?  The smallest child was seriously ill and needed expensive care.  The oldest son got involved with a gang and was jailed.  Would the church help?  The church decided to sell the house. 

Most of my family shut me out long ago because their goal in life was to get prosperous and fulfill their fantasies about being Scots immigrants, proud and smart.  Or on the other side, stylish upscale lawyers' wives.  Safe.  I left that.  I left ministry to one congregation because they made it clear they wanted NOTHING to do with Indians, who were not “us” and probably dangerous or contagious. I have dumped and blocked a lot of people who were sucking wounds, because they were pulling me towards a vortex I knew I couldn’t survive.  Not that they were very pleasant in the first place.  And they didn’t believe in my work.  

On the other hand, there are people who wrack and disappoint me, but at the same time are so rewarding in terms of growth and understanding that I would never betray them -- if it were in my power not to.  I might fall short.

Today I mostly make the cat’s choice:  watching.  There are others doing the same thing and developing new ideas about what’s really happening and where to go from here.  How do we help families form kids who are supported but not confined; educated but not indoctrinated; proud but not arrogant?  How are we to understand love in a time of “hook-up culture”?  How do we work out a better match between ethnicity and national boundaries so people are not constantly fighting over territory?  How are we going to feed the world when the genomic changes in plants plus their chemical support are making so many people allergic, autistic, diabetic?  

But this is all theory, from a distance.  I try not to shield my heart from the reality of individuals I know about who are pushed into the shadows of ruins, only sending notes out when there is enough moonlight. 

The Ruins of St. Lo

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