Watching The Wire is a great way to feel miserable about the state of the world in general, but it’s also gets me thinking about what I did (and didn’t do) as a missionary.
The Wire‘s Baltimore looks a lot like Memphis the way I remember it; they’re about the same size (~650,000 people), with about the same demographics (60% black, 30% white), and have most of the same problems–a dying shipping industry, entrenched political corruption, grinding poverty, and violent crime so endemic that it’s almost not a problem to be solved anymore, but something you just plan around, like the weather.
And it isn’t an abstract, diffuse kind of misery.
The strength of the show is that it creates complex, fully-realized characters–people you could know and like–and then chews them to pieces in the teeth of that society. And I know that the grim vision of Baltimore depicted in The Wire is essentially true to life, because I’ve walked around in it.
I met the people who were raised in generations of poverty and abuse–whose parents sold their clothes to buy drugs. I knew kids whose only hope of belonging and safety was to become a “soldier” in some street gang. And virtually everyone I spoke to had a child, or sibling, or parent “in the system” in one capacity or another.
The thing that troubles me is that these fictional characters on television seem more real to me than the actual people for whom that world was a reality–mostly because of my own incuriosity.
I really did care about the people in Memphis–but we were told (in so many words) that they were not our problem to solve; that we were there to look for people who were “prepared”, and should keep moving until we found them.
So for me, the misery I encountered really was hazy and impersonal.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do more–I just believed (somewhat sensibly) that I wasn’t a therapist, or a lawyer, or a social worker. I couldn’t rescue anybody.
There’s probably some practical wisdom in that; a bunch of kids from the suburbs probably don’t have any business trying to play white savior in inner-city Memphis. But it also seems a little too practical for people in our line of work.
Of course, in hindsight, if we were looking for undamaged people in that environment, we may as well have been looking for leprechauns. But I’d been told that that was the way to go, and I didn’t have any better ideas–so I spent most of my mission interacting with most people at a pretty superficial level. We’d do a little small talk, deliver the pitch, and see if anybody was interested (they weren’t).
For two years, all I did was meet new people–and in all that time, I found out hardly anything about them as individuals.
We got to know people who needed their electric bill paid–they were eager to tell us their problems. But the average person just listened politely, thanked us for coming, and sent us on our way.
Occasionally, when someone invited us back, we got to know a little bit about their challenges–usually in the context of explaining why they missed this or that appointment–and then their troubles were a mild annoyance, an obstacle on the road to conversion.
Some of these people had a child in prison. Others were mired in abusive relationships, or drugs, or gangs. Many had been to prison themselves, and couldn’t find work. And rather than ask myself how I could help, I usually thought, “This probably isn’t going to go anywhere. We should move on.”
I know that sounds callous. I certainly didn’t mean to be. I loved those people–at least, as much as I knew how. I wanted them to be happy, and, all cynicism aside, I really believe that’s why I was out there. But I felt like I only had the one thing to offer them–and if they didn’t want it, I didn’t know what else to do.
It wasn’t that they weren’t worth my time–I didn’t think I was worth theirs. I couldn’t get their kids out of prison, or find them a job, or erase their debts, or cure their addictions, or pull them out of the cycle of abuse and victimhood.
I had this set of truths that I believed (and still believe) could change their lives–but no one seemed interested in that, and any other comfort I could offer seemed meaningless in the face of their problems.
I thought hell must be something like Memphis.
One of my earliest memories of teaching was in a big, dilapidated house on the corner–suspiciously big for an unemployed single mother of three, but I didn’t think about that at the time. Everything had that sticky dampness of squalor about it, and as I sat down, I saw a cockroach out of the corner of my eye, perched on the sofa a few inches from my shoulder.
She had three kids, somewhere between ages five and nine, who were shouting and chasing each other around the room as we bravely soldiered through our lesson. She tried to ignore them for a while, but after a few minutes she snapped, and charged over to them, screaming and cursing and swatting, and sent them upstairs. As she sat back down, she muttered, “I can’t wait ’til y’all go to jail.”
What do you say to that? “Families Can Be Together Forever”? What does a 19-year-old kid have to offer in that situation?
That’s a dramatic example, and I’m not sure anyone could have helped her without professional training, but we met an awful lot of people who seemed just as out of reach to us. And that’s a strange place to be, for a kid who honestly believes he has The Answers that can make everything all better.
Missionaries dealt with that in different ways.
Some figured that we were failing because we weren’t righteous enough–so they’d flagellate themselves (and everyone else) about regulations and dress standards, hoping that eventually the offering would please God and He’d trust us with all the “prepared” people He was hiding. Others basically gave up and phoned in the rest of their missions.
For me, I think the solution was detachment, and a pretty dark sense of humor. I hear EMTs talk that way–when it’s your job to help, and you spend so much time around people you can’t help, it’s tempting to dehumanize them a little (or a lot) just to make your world make sense. We weren’t dealing with corpses, but sometimes it felt that way.
Of course, while I was busy despairing on their behalf, agonizing over the impossible task of saving them, I missed a lot of pedestrian opportunities to make things a little bit better. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t be so quick to give up.
Most of life is little, incremental tasks, and it’s so much slower than it seems like it ought to be–at least to those of us who grew up watching Daniel-san learn karate in a 30-second montage. I wish I had figured that out sooner.