Saturday, September 18, 2004

Spiderman and the limits of responsibility

A few weeks ago, after a very hectic period in my schedule, I allowed myself the almost unimaginable treat of going out to see a movie. I went to see Spiderman 2, which I figured would be a good escape.

Spiderman 2 is a movie about responsibility and the limits of responsibility. As Spiderman, Peter Parker is saving people's lives, but at a tremendous personal cost: he gets fired from his job for being late, he's flunking out of college, and he is losing the woman he loves. Peter is trying to figure out where his responsibility ends. How much of yourself, how many of your dreams, are you willing to give up for the sake of other people? How do you measure one person's desperate, life-threatening need against your own more mundane needs for comfort, regularity, security, romance? There is one amazing scene in the movie where Peter is trying to stop a runaway train; he spreads his arms out in front of the train in the form of a cross, looking as if he is being crucified.

After watching the movie, I met Eleanor and her two-year-old son Jacob at the grocery store. Eleanor had called me the day before, desperate, because she was out of food, she and Jacob hadn't really eaten for two days. Eleanor is homeless right now, she lives in a tent down by the river. Psychologists at the university tested Eleanor and diagnosed a developmental disability; her reading comprehension and mental development are at approximately a third grade level. She is functionally illiterate. The psychologists determined that she was incapable of holding down a job, but SSI denied her petition to go on permanent disability. So she is living on welfare, ticking off her two years of eligibility for "welfare to work." Except that she can't even collect welfare right now, because she lost her place to live, lost her mailing address, and they won't let you pick up welfare checks from the local office if you're homeless. Cuts down on fraud and overhead.

So I took her through the grocery store, buying milk and fruit and bread and soup and other staples. I took them out to dinner at a fast food place. And I put some gas in their car. And all the while, I'm thinking that I have bills, debts, responsibilities, that this is not something I can really afford.

What are the limits of responsibility? This used to be an easier question. Sure, fine, help whoever comes to you; after all, how often do people come knocking at your door? But what happens when it becomes a weekly or even daily event? When need opens up like an abyss before you, and you realize you could throw everything you have and your own self into that abyss and not even make a beginning of filling it? How many people with hungry kids do you try to feed before you have to say enough, no more, I have to feed my own kids? Where do you draw that line?

The miracle of the five loaves and two fish is telling us that in the act of sharing what we offer is multiplied, becomes enough to meet the need. But sometimes, in my darker moments, I wonder if it really works that way. You bless, and you break, and you give, but in the end it is still only five loaves and two fish, not really enough for a meal, the food quickly gone, the hunger dulled but not sated.

I think about how the disciples must have felt when they looked at that vast crowd and their slender resources. How they felt when the Lord said, "You give them something to eat."

1 comment:

Stacy said...

"No man is an island...."
--Thomas Merton