Year 3: That Life-Giving Pinch

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“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.” — C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), English author and scholar

My family's disability and unemployment dilemma has forced perpetual growing pains on us over the last three years, and the growth spurt seems to be going strong. The first year challenged my parents to come to accept that mental illness had indeed changed our lives forever. After much struggle they came to accept that unemployment would be be an indefinite reality in Dad's life. Meanwhile, my brother made the decision to sacrifice his own immediate goals in order to financially support my family. All four of us were faced with heavier stress than we had ever experienced, and began the long hard road through depression, fear, conflict, anger, grief, and illness - learning stress-management the hard way.

The second year brought into focus our family's fear of reaching out for help, even to friends and other family members. Our path took us to the verge of emotional breakdown before that line was finally crossed. I'm still scratching my head over it, actually, wondering why anyone in our situation wouldn't immediately seek support from family and friends! Maybe the problem has been passed down to us through our heritage: Families with a Mennonite background come from a tradition of hardship and hard work, and therefore might resist asking for help within family, friends, and church groups because it could be perceived as challenging tradition; it may lead people to allow pride or shame (or both) to prevent them from seeking tangible assistance. Or perhaps the problem is rooted in our political hang-ups: While there is a contingent of Mennonites across North America who espouse social justice ideals, there is also a contingent espousing economically conservative views who are vocal in their distaste for individuals or families who require any kind of social assistance, both formal and informal. This may prevent those in need from asking for help because they fear the ways in which they might be perceived or stigmatized as being lazy, abusers of the system, moochers, or thieves. A third possibility may be a distorted understanding of ‘humility’ and 'self-sacrifice' within our belief system that prevents those in need from asking for help, even in times of mounting distress. People may experience guilt from the act of help-seeking, believing that they must ignore their problems in order to help others. Well, whatever the reason, it's a problem that my family finally overcame last year, albeit painfully and under a heavy sense of defeat and failure. The road to accepting our current situation with grace has been a gradual one.

We are currently in Year Three, and our challenge this year has been to distinguish "need" from "want". We've sifted through our so-called needs, we've sacrificed, we've re-prioritized the usual commodities and self-indulgences that define the Western lifestyle, and we've learned to live on less. Even for a lower-middle class family such as ourselves there are things we can and will give up that will help those who live in extreme poverty. My brother and I have been especially challenged to re-evaluate Scripture's teaching on the lifestyle of charity and giving. We have a more intimate grasp of C.S. Lewis' statement above, that "If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, (...) they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them." How terribly counter-culture that sounds, what a distinctly inconvenient, imbalanced, and extreme statement - not unlike Jesus' incitive teachings on love and sacrifice. ;) Lewis' conviction rings true in us regardless of how long or how deeply we may have bought into our culture's ideology of self-indulgence, because our conscience has always known the right and only way to love our neighbour. There's life in the pinch, especially if we choose to live without the extras so that others can have the basics to stay alive.

So, it looks like year three promises to bring another series of difficult, life-changing lessons. I think I'm looking forward to it.