Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Enormity of Need

“I haven’t said this out loud before, but the enormity of his need actually frightens me,” she confessed.

While we waited for the curtain to come up, my girlfriend Elaina told me about a ten year old boy named Ty who is a friend to her son Graham.

“Ty lives in our city’s housing projects with his mother who is raising him on her own. She suffers from severe diabetes and is frequently hospitalized for extended periods of time with life threatening illnesses.”

“Graham and Ty have been close friends since kindergarten,” Elaina told me. “When Graham recently sprained his ankle playing basketball, Ty was the only one of his teammates who rushed over to see if Graham was all right. It was Ty and the coach that helped Graham limp off the court.”

She paused, but soon continued.

“I went to pick Ty up for a play date this morning and, in front of him, his mother told me she was worried because he was becoming such a fat pig. She actually used the words fat pig! And then she handed him a pop tart for breakfast.”

Elaina shook her head sadly.

“He’s a fabulous kid, really he is, but his needs are so enormous.”

“Every day when I pick Graham up from the after-school program, Ty asks to come home with us.”

“This is irrational,” she said, “but I worry that all the negative things that Ty’s been exposed to and forced to live with will somehow rub off on Graham.”

“None of Ty’s circumstances are his fault,” I offered. “He probably doesn’t like them any more than you do.”

“I know,” she sighed.

We were quiet for a moment.

“What do you think would it cost you and your family to become wide open to Ty, to commit to him? What is the worst thing that could happen?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m afraid that his enormous need would completely consume our family life.”

There was another pause in the conversation.

“What would you like Graham to learn from the choices you make about Ty?” I asked.

The lights dimmed over the audience and the show we were waiting to see began.

We didn’t return to our conversation about Ty, but he stayed on my mind.

Elaina’s struggle seemed immensely important to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so triggered by it.

Then, on the way to work this morning I discussed something I’ve been grappling with at work with my husband.

For most of my career I have worked for a volunteer organization, advocating for people to be active, engaged citizens.

Last week, I initiated an online conversation by asking “If you could direct the full force of the American volunteer spirit to effect change on a single social issue, what would you ask people to do?”

One respondent said that while he believed that volunteers alleviated suffering, he didn’t believe they were capable of making systemic change.

I told my husband that even after twenty years of this work, I found myself worrying about what he said, worrying about the possibility of him being right.

My husband smiled at me.

“I think individual action might be all there is,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Look at the IMF, it was set up to end poverty and has it succeeded? What really works?” he asked.

There was a pause.

“In the end, it boils down to individual, human relationships,” he said.

I nodded, finally understanding why my friend’s story seemed so urgent.

It’s possible that breaking the cycle of poverty boils down to the choice Elaina makes about Ty and the choices the rest of us make about the Tys we find in our lives.

38 comments:

Joie said...

Now I am in existential crisis for I do similar sorts of work.

~ifer said...

Can a group of volunteers change the world we live in? Not immediately, not drastic, world-changing reform. But they can change lives, one at a time. And those changed lives affect others, who are in turn changed. It takes a bit longer, but the change is every bit as real. In fact, I think change brought about by volunteers is, in some way, even more real, because it is personal. It is not cold policy changes, it is one person reaching out to another, making a difference. Just think about the story of Michael Ohr in the Blind Side. That family changed just one person's life, but in doing so, they changed mine as well when I heard the story.
I apologize for the novel of a comment, but I believe in touching the lives that you can, making the difference that you can, and if we would all do this, the world WOULD be changed.

Mahala said...

When we choose to initiate change on a personal level, we impact individuals, not statistics or focus groups etc. What we do may not impact the "numbers" at all, but to the individual whose life we touch, the effect is huge :)

furiousBall said...

this will totally sound hokey - but sometimes the greatest byproduct of volunteering is sometimes just the volunteering itself. it let's others know it's ok to help and that no matter how busy someone's schedule might be - we can all help in some fashion.

Magpie said...

Many small actions add up to a better world.

Anonymous said...

Husband is correct and yet I wonder if the poverty situation would not be worse if the IMF was not in place. Seems that it really boils down to how many individuals and how many programs are directed to and at a problem. What is the degree of relief?

Heather, Queen of Shake Shake said...

Gawd, I love you. (Is that inappropriate?)

I do believe it starts with one person. Perhaps it is the only thing that matters.

Gunfighter said...

Brilliant.

We have to be the change we want to make. It sounds trite, but I have always believed that we can effect change in the lives of individuals, based on what we do every day... how we interact and how much we show that we care about others.

The small (or large things) that we do for individuals can have a a huge net effect.

myfluffybunnies said...

I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotations of all time: "A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has" (Margaret Mead). I have an ancient T-shirt from college that has this on it, and while my husband would like me to retire it, the shirt is a tangible reminder of an important message I so often overlook.

Bea said...

The problem with individual action, though, is that it's so individual. That is exactly what Elaina is saying - she can't carry this alone. She could pick up one part of that need and carry it, but that will only work if there are a few other individuals - neighbours, friends - who pick up the other parts. My mom is totally drained right now because she has a friend with bipolar disorder and a degenerative illness, and there are workers who come each day, and there is an elderly mother who does what she can, but still there is this terrible need, and far too few people to meet it.

Promotional Printing said...

Let's stay optimistic and believe we really can do it despite all circumstances. We should start within ourselves. Your post made me realize a lot of things.

amanda said...

This individual is going to try and do more.

LSM said...

Have you read Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. A lot of your post really resonated with me, since I've just finished this book as part of a class I'm taking.

Never doubt the power of commited volunteers. They have and will continue to change the world.

Katybeth said...

I love the line “I think individual action might be all there is,” he said. I also appreciate Elaine thoughtfulness--her relationship to this other family and child is not just about helping but the impact her choice has on both families.

Mckechnies said...

Yes it starts with one individual, but sometimes its soo hard! There's so much opposition and when everyone else is laughing at you or against you, it could make you change. I guess what I'm trying to say is you have to have a reason for trying to make a change or else if one small hurdle comes around you're so not going to jump, you'll just go back to old and easy ways...
Definitely a very reflective article...

Emily N said...

Ty's mother called him a fat pig and then gave him a pop tart. That tells you a lot right there - she cares about her son (to the extent that calling him a "fat pig" can be interpreted as caring about his health, I'm just going to go with that), but does not have the education or tools necessary to do anything about it - the food she is giving him is actually contributing to the problem she herself identifies. SHE is the one who is even more in need of support than the son - if she had her act together, then she would be doing a better job raising her son and your friend wouldn't feel like she was having to take on this huge burden. I feel like my taxes should be going to govt programs to help women like her, so that she can get the health care she needs and the parenting skills training she so clearly needs... but with all the cutbacks nowadays, she probably gets very little support if any. Whatever your friend is willing to do to help this boy is wonderful, but I would not blame her for feeling like it's too much :-(

Lisa said...

What an incredible post. You're going to have me thinking about that all day today. And the next and the next!

SM said...

I just love this post. You are so right on....

SheSaid/HeSaid said...

Wow - this is deep and thought-provoking . . . and if you ask me, much needed in our society today. If we all wait for someone else to act . . . we get nowhere fast.

I see this post as paying-it-forward. By bringing this subject up for discussion it makes us all think . . . and hopefully make us take action too.

Thanks for making me think!

Peter said...

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Sayre said...

It's not just a problem with children - adults have the rug yanked out from under them on a regular basis these days. Those who have been adrift for a long time begin to doubt their own worth to society because they can't find a job. I know of one and I try to help her from time to time with food or sometimes money for gas or towards the electric bill. It's not much, but she's still with us. There was a time when I thought she might just end it all because she was so down.

Sayre said...

I do have to add that it's not just me who's trying to keep her afloat. There's a group of about six of us who do the same thing.

Kyla said...

You said it well.

Margaret said...

Wow. You've scrambled up a bunch of thoughts here. So well said. K is right, Mead was right. It is your friends action that can save Ty. Not us by paying our taxes and voting for large social programs. But the large non-profits have to be there to provide education, resources and support for the individuals who do make a difference. Ty is the starfish. What Elaine's family does will make a huge difference for him. organizations make it easier for hundreds of individuals like your friend to make a difference, even if its just easing the transition into being a volunteer. You are making a difference when you do that.

Promotional Printing said...

It really starts with one person to make that change or to make that difference. We need actions to effect other people's lives and stuff. By showing sympathy and empathizing.

BOSSY said...

Whoa. So true. Off to throw the ol' life under a microscope. xoxoxox

Cat brush said...

what a though provoking article. thanks so much for sharing

thisnewplace said...

kind of like parenting...one by one, one on one...we make an impact on individuals and on their ability to grow and change and do good themselves.

Denguy said...

I get it. I do. I've been there, I've been in need.

Nanette @ SmilingMom said...

I need you or someone just like you to be my real life friend. This post touched me. Thank you. And thank you for asking that hard question to your friend.

Shannon said...

Ty must crave being in the presence of your friend and her family. It seems like the only semblence of stability he has.

She never mentioned that he isn't well behaved, so what actions of his is she worried will rub off on her own son?

I hope she opens her heart to Ty and offers some bit of nurturing. A little of that will go a long way in his life and give him hope that the world isn't all dark and bad.

Kelly said...

I really like what Bea says. I think your friend recognizes exactly that. She could take up and do a large part for Ty where his own family fails him, but can she do it alone? Can she wield enough influence that it takes him above and beyond his own circumstances?

I understand her reticence, even as I'd be encouraging her to jump right in.

Deb said...

Great piece. The ethics of giving can be complicated, but I have to keep it simple or I'll get stuck, or feel fatigue. I think a lot of my service work I do for me. It helps me understand--including understanding limits and an increasingly larger definition of need. And in that context, it is all of benefit, even if it's not enough.

Gingers Mom said...

Beautiful post. Sometimes we just believe that "someone" will take on the challenge. But SOME of us have to be "someone".

Pekanbaru Riau said...

I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotations of all time: "A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has" (Margaret Mead). I have an ancient T-shirt from college that has this on it, and while my husband would like me to retire it, the shirt is a tangible reminder of an important message I so often overlook.

Tamara said...

That right there is a BIG problem these days w/ our children...it's bad enough that they are expected by their peers at school to look or BE a certain way...but for a mother to call her son a fat pig is just flat uncalled for.
You had more patience than me,cuz I would have pulled her to the side and let her have it BOTH barrels(as if it would have mattered anyways).
I agree w/ others that talk about "change" starting w/ just ONE person.One leads to TWO...two leads to THREE...and so on and so on.....great eye-opener post,hun
Texastammi

Bungi said...

K hit the nail on the head. I do think it is one person at a time, one choice at a time, one step at a time...

James said...

I wonder if the poverty situation would not be worse if the IMF was not in place. Seems that it really boils down to how many individuals and how many programs are directed to and at a problem.