Care and condescension

…I seem to be following a thread from yesterday’s post.

Years ago I came across a quote, which I can no longer locate, that said something to the effect that we need to ask for forgiveness from those we care for.

On this, initial confusion has given way to some clarity: When I started work as manager of a homeless shelter, the work was, in my mind, something far more noble than the industry I was leaving. I relished comments like, “Oh, the work you do is so difficult…but it must be rewarding.” And I didn’t resist the implication that other work, by virtue of its secularity or its attention to widgets, was socially (and spiritually) inferior.

Thankfully, over time, a number of small rancorous events served to reflect my  attitude back to me. What I see now, a thing of distress to me and an irony that escaped me entirely, was that this rarefied attitude automatically undermined my compassion for the people I tried to serve. If inwardly, I saw “my work” as elevated above the kind of gainful employment I encouraged “street people” to seek, of what use was that? Worse, if I fell (which I did) for the accompanying inside message that told me that my identity is all about my work? well, now it’s not just what I do that’s more important, it’s that I’m more important. And what does all this project into the ether?

Of course it’s easy enough for those on the so-called receiving side to detect the smell of this attitude–an attitude which is really a subjugating spirit that extends a hand only through condescension.

But anyone in a position of helping another person is in a position of power. And so any sort of giving outside of some humility is mere self-congratulating care. The help may be received but not welcomed. Received, but resented. Think of America’s bewilderment at not being liked even after dropping bags of rice on drought-gutted African countries. A sense of social and spiritual superiority is a creeping vine. It takes time and perhaps outright in-the-face hostility, and then a willingness for reflection, to cut it off at the base.

Care that is condescending, that draws attention to itself and so unduly points out need in others just sets up and reinforces socio-spiritual class systems. No, the only way through this is acquiring, through contemplation and practice and much rehearsal and many refresher courses, a transformational understanding that knows, in the thick of human encounter, that we are all one.

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