How do we really know someone and how do they really know us? Even with some of the closest friendship there are often aspects of a person that remain unknown. Perhaps the most revealing relationships are between a mother and her children or a husband and wife. Even then it is possible that there may be secrets. It might even be argued that sometimes we do not even know ourselves.
On our own we tend to be more critical of faults that we see in ourselves that are not so apparent to others. We analyze ourselves down to the last flaws on our bodies, which are often unnoticeable to everyone else. In extreme cases individuals engage in a kind of unhealthy self-criticism. They actually feel unworthy of any compliments that may come their way, instead believing that if only others knew more about them, they would be shunned by society.
I have often found that my most difficult students were beset by a kind of self loathing. They found themselves wanting when compared to the other people around them. Often they attempted to cover their self hate with jokes, outrageous behavior or even by attempting to simply blend into the shadows. They were sad little souls who for whatever reason had been beaten down. They were not always easy to spot. Often the seemingly most confident and happy youngsters were hiding concerns that were dark and heavy.
I always became very attached to my students. I cared deeply for each and every one of them. I came to realize how many were carrying unfathomable baggage that hindered their happiness in one way or another. Not wanting to pry, I simply worried about some. Others found solace in my presence and opened up to me about the things that were bothering them. I often felt overwhelmed by the stories that I heard, knowing that in all but a few cases there was very little that I might do to change things for them. Instead I attempted to provide them with outlets that helped develop their talents and gave them a realization of how much they had to offer a sometimes unforgiving world.
When I think of babies I smile. Most of them are born flawlessly innocent and inquisitive. The environment in which they develop along with genetic tendencies begin to influence the trajectory of their lives in positive and negative ways. The boy who began life with the potential of exceptional intelligence suddenly lapsed into failure after witnessing his mother’s murder at the hands of his father. It took great patience and the love of a village of adults to pull him out of the doldrums of sorrow and guilt and then to put him back on track to becoming the person that he had every possibility of being. I often wonder what might have happened to him without the understanding of a determined aunt and a host of teachers who saw his inner goodness in spite of his ugly rants in the classroom. How many people are instead relegated to the trash heap because it is unpleasant to be around them?
I have story after story of young people forced to endure abuse, horrific tragedies, and illnesses that left them teetering on the brink of giving up on themselves. They were often quite difficult to like or even to try to care about. Many times such souls simply wander into adulthood without direction. They are described by society with words like lazy, ignorant, trashy, thugs. Sometimes that’s exactly how they act. Sadly most of them might have been saved from such epithets if only someone had helped them to see what lay within them before their bad habits became ironclad beliefs about who they are.
I cringe when I hear people complaining about the cost of programs that attempt to provide people with proper medical care, counseling, education, food and housing. Much of the violence that we see in the world would be eliminated if all people felt their true worth and then had opportunities to develop their talents. I have watched the KIPP Charter schools teach students the power of learning, hard work and being nice. I am often stunned and also elated by the numbers of former KIPP students who are the first to earn college degrees in their families. Many become lifelong learners who earn advanced degrees or certifications. Even those without college work harder than the average soul. They accept the challenges of rigorous tasks and never give up when times become difficult.
It took great effort from hundreds of adults to get them to a point of realizing how much more they were capable of doing. Starting with their parents, counselors, coaches, and devoted teachers pushed them to find their uniqueness and the talents that were inside them all along. The system was small enough that nobody was left behind. Everyone had a champion or many champions to support them.
We tend to be eager to pay for whatever our military needs. We like roads to be repaired and want our mail to arrive in a timely fashion. We even allow that schools need our tax money within reason, but we waver when it comes to talk of programs that might lift up the marginal citizens of our society. We are not so sure that we want to spend our funds on early childhood education or free junior colleges. We grinch about living wages and help for childcare. We are happy with our own medical insurance but don’t really want to spend anymore on those who go without such a luxury. We relegate mental health to the margins and even trivialize the incidence of such illnesses. We punish addictive behaviors rather than creating programs for rehabilitation. We leave a large segment of the population to fend for themselves no matter how difficult that may be.
I venture to say that there is a direct correlation between social programs designed to lift up individuals and a decrease in unemployment, violence and crime. If we long for a better world we must start by meeting the needs of one person at a time until everyone understands that we want them to succeed. That is how we eradicate the self doubt and even self hate that leads to desperation and desperate acts. I’ve seen a caring attitude work miracles. Think of the possibilities if that attitude were taken nationwide. Isn’t that the reason that Jesus came to live among us? Isn’t that the message of this season?