One of the most inventive people engaging neighbors in community building is Ray Thompson. In his April 2011 newsletter he writes a soulful reflection on the perils of helping.
~ John ~
IN Communities – April 2011
A Monthly Publication of Thompson Community Relations Group
Away From Help and Towards Community
Several months ago I decided to put my monthly commentary on community life, IN Communities, on hiatus. The urge to write disappeared. I began to see the ways I blocked community. During that time I watched several young African American men return to jail for varying degrees of probation/parole violation. I read their long letters tinged with regret. Letters heavy with thoughts and emotions of life on the outside taking place without them. I answered their brief phone calls of connection. An ear to listen and perhaps a few dollars in their prison commissary connected them to the “outside life”. I often obliged their requests, but wondered why these young men couldn’t simply keep their asses out of jail. I found jobs for them, included them in my workshops, we shared a few drinks, and relationship war stories. One young man shared I was like a father to him, but even he returned to jail for a violation. He made a stupid mistake. A total lack of forethought and self control and I felt let down. “After all the help I had given him……”
And there it was, “after all the help I had given him”. I was trying to offer the young man help. I was trying to fix him, when he simply wanted connection with me. Conversation and simply a place to be him without being reminded of his mistakes provided hope. He told me tales of multiple “helpers”, his teachers, lawyers, and, probation officers. He said they treated him differently. Somehow their help produced guilt and hopelessness. The help he received was based upon the mistakes he made. The more mistakes he made the more help or observation he received. The more helpers watched to ensure he made no mistakes, the more mistakes he made, and the more they watched. Until the right mistake ensured he was watched continuously, behind bars.
This young man’s hired helpers assisted him into a continuous cycle based on his mistakes. Connection offered him hope and new possibilities, simply in the listening and exchanging without expectation. Expecting him to do better and be better was based on my knowledge of his previous failures.
I became a helper the instant I acted on an expectation.
When he was simply the young man in my neighborhood we forged community and through connection he discovered new interests and a new path. In this sharing and listening things happened. He found a job, met new people, and went new places. Until an unexpected visit from his probation officer who discovered a violation, during a room search. A violation serious enough to set this young man back several years, in a prison cell, ensuring no more mistakes were made, at least within that time period.
On the night he returned home from prison, on bond, he told me how awful it was being there and how he wished he could avoid more time, but accepts there is more to come because of the degree of his violation. He shared that I never treated him like a felon or a convict and hopes I am not upset with him. I shared, quickly and without thought, “A man reaps what he sows. Expecting anything less would make you less than a man. Find lessons in your mistakes. Stop sharing all these feelings and have a damn drink! ” Later I wished there was a place he could just be, without being reminded of his labels and his past.
For a time we reached that place together, conviviality and community, sharing our lives while reaching the bottom of our drinks.