Mark Reidy: Authentic Christianity means believing others fundamentally worthwhile

31 Dec 2008

By The Record

Deserving to be fed comes before teaching one to fish
A question I sometimes get asked when people discover that I spend time with people addicted to drugs and alcohol or who are caught up in prostitution and homelessness, is: “Aren’t they the cause of their own problems?” Others can be more blunt, “Don’t waste your time,” they tell me: “…they made their own bed, let them lie in it…”
These may, at first, appear to be callous responses to the plight of struggling individuals, but I can understand what motivates their frustration.
When one stands at a distance and witnesses the self-destructive behaviour that can often characterise those who exist on the fringe of society, some of the decisions they make can indeed appear both perplexing and annoying.
The fact is, that many of their choices are.
To watch helplessly as someone addicted to drugs or solvents destroys months of abstinence with one bad decision can be soul destroying for those who have walked beside them during the difficult road of rehabilitation.
To witness an alcoholic or gambler blow their entire income in one night is like watching a horrific car accident unfold before your eyes. You know that the ramifications will be devastating and will destructively ripple throughout every part of their existence, just as they know. But they do it anyway.
So it is easy to identify with those who, either subtly or blatantly, suggest that such people should be left to languish in their own mess. Words such as “tough love”, “they have to hit rock bottom” and “you’re not helping by holding their hand” are not uncommon and I agree that there is a rightful place for them.
But when these sentiments do not emanate from a heart of love, then they only add to the annihilation. If they are not driven by a desire to see the other person healed, then they, most likely, are driven by the sense of helplessness that comes with watching another human self-destruct.
That is not to say that we are to condone their actions in any way, for people must always be accountable for their own decisions, but by attempting to live out the example of unconditional love that Jesus taught, we might be able to keep alive or resurrect a sense within them that they are worthy of love. This is the first step towards wholeness.
However in order to begin this process it is essential that we familiarise ourselves with the emotional reality of the wounded person.
Not only does this allow us to better understand them, but it is also the most effective way I know of deflecting our inclination to judge. By entering into the life of another, we expose ourselves to their pain and this in turn can give us a new awareness of what motivates their choices and behaviour.
When we can make a personal connection between the physically abused boy who has become the violent aggressor, the sexually abused girl who sleeps with anyone who shows her attention or the emotionally abandoned child who seeks solace in a drug induced haze, then we are less likely to give up on them as they continually make the wrong choices.
 One of my favourite sayings is: “Give a man a fish and he has food for the day; teach him how to fish and he has food for a lifetime”, but often with the broken lives that I encounter, there is a wide chasm between their sense of self worth and this goal of self-reliance. While teaching them to fish should always be our aim, it is only a useful skill to have if the person firstly believes that they deserve to be