Thursday, November 11, 2004

The least of these

Yesterday, I stopped in to visit Therese. Therese lives in a trailer park in a rural area, a place of bizarre contradictions where the very rich and the very poor live in a kind of accidental community. In one space will be a beautiful RV, costing easily more than a hundred thousand dollars, with a brand new SUV parked next to it: well-heeled tourists visiting the nearby National Park. In the next space over will be a dilapidated little trailer that was probably acquired for less than $200, siding missing, cardboard in the windows, and a tarp over the roof to keep the rain out, with several broken down vehicles in various states of disassembly scattered around the yard. The trailer park is the epicenter of poverty in this area, the next to the last stop before having noplace to go.

Therese's trailer is a disaster from the outside, even worse on the inside. It is the house of a person who has been defeated by life, the living environment of someone who sees little use trying anymore. She smiles a lot, but its a rueful kind of smile, the uncertain grin of someone laughing at a joke that might turn out at her own expense. She worries a lot about her children. There is Carol, who is in high school, and who hangs around with Jason and Sarah, teenagers in the trailer park who are having sex and using crystal meth. She gets mad at Carol and yells at her too much; one can only wonder if her meaning bleeds through all those angry words: Please don't screw up. You have a life and a future ahead of you. Please don't get stoned and pregnant and stay stranded on this mountain forever.

Please don't repeat my mistakes.

Then there are Sheri and Paul, who are four and six. Therese's fears about Sheri and Paul are much more uncomplicated: she worries about feeding them. Underneath her smile lurks the shadow of quiet desperation, the look of someone who has been cornered many times, and has made decisions of which she is not proud.

Therese has her own business trimming trees and cutting firewood. She works hard. Unlike some in her position, she really tries. But every time she tries to take a step up the ladder, the rungs crack and splinter underneath her feet. Just when she seems finally about to get a break, something always happens: her truck breaks down or gets impounded for not having tags, or her equipment fails, and the job goes away. She lacks self-confidence, and so underbids the jobs she does get, selling herself short and barely covering her expenses.

November begins the most difficult time in the mountains, the time when all the odd jobs and temporary work dry up. November is also the time of year when the aid offices run out of money for assistance with propane and electric bills until around February, when the new grants come through. Our food distribution in this area used to nearly double in volume in the period from November through March. Therese confided to me that the firewood business, her only real prospect during the winter, didn't look so good this year.

I brought over some food, some rice and canned goods and a pan of frozen Greek chicken I swiped from the church freezer. I suggested that she put the chicken in the freezer, but she said they'd probably thaw it out and eat it right away.

So things are pretty bad for them right now.

I dropped by while attending a conference on the subject of trauma, particularly the trauma resulting from terrorist attacks or natural disasters. One of the presenters, though, took some time to talk about the unrelenting trauma of poverty. As a family systems therapist, he pointed out that it is usually the weakest and most vulnerable members of a family who become "symptom bearers," the persons in whom the stress or pathology of the entire family surfaces. But he also pointed out that this happens at a national and international level: the most vulnerable populations bear the symptoms of our collective pathologies. Trauma shatters our illusion of security, but within a year or two, people of means have mostly picked up and moved on, while those who lack access to resources are still traumatized. The rich take their expensive RV's and "get away from it all," but the trailers of the poor never go anywhere; they cannot get away from anything. For most of us, a major traumatic event is almost a kind of luxury, since it implies that there are long spaces on either side of the event in which we are not being traumatized and have an opportunity to recover. But for the weakest members of society, trauma is a continuous event, a daily shattering of whatever illusion of security still remains intact, a constant living on the crumbling edge of despair, a shadow of quiet desperation behind a smile.

When Christ said that He is present in "the least of these," perhaps there is more to this than we can ever know. Perhaps it is true that, like Him, they are suffering for all of us. For all our sins.

It's a beautiful world we live in

A sweet romantic place
Beautiful people everywhere
The way they show they care
makes me want to say

It's a beautiful world.

For you...
... not me.


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