I’m spending my Good Friday transcribing interviews and finishing a story.
The story I’m writing is on race, class and education in Durham, and it’s complicated. I’ve been working on it all semester, and I have a semester’s worth of lessons to boil down into a couple thousand words. And most of those words are spent on narrative storytelling – on engaging readers and helping them understand. But although I find the individual stories engaging, I’m most engaged by the lessons I’m learning.
These lessons have layers. There are some cut-and-dry, surface-level lessons: minority students are disciplined more frequently than white students, poverty intersects with color more often than not and has disastrous results, and it’s incredibly difficult to live life with a felony record and without a high school diploma.
Then there’s the next level: that our society is still plagued by racism, although this racism is much more intrinsic than intentional. That actions have long-lasting consequences, and some people are forgiven by society more easily than others. That school and home life cannot be separated, and that students don’t check their lives at the door when they walk into the institution that’s supposed to enable them to make something of themselves.
But it keeps getting deeper, especially when you delve into the baggage that students bring to school. There’s the baggage of feeling the need to fit in, but never quite being able to do so. There’s mental illness and disabilities and varying levels of intelligence. There are feelings of inadequacy, patterns of failure and unmet physical needs – food, clothing and shelter.
And if you keep digging as I have, you find a truth that should be disturbing. Underneath it all, there is the simple fact that feeling unloved and unworthy has devastating consequences.
I have seen a lot of poverty for being only 21 years old. I grew up the daughter of veterinarians who worked at a horse racetrack, so right away I was exposed to illegal immigrants living in feed rooms – the equivalent of shacks. In high school, I went on mission trips to Mexico and then began feeding the homeless every Monday night, forging relationships that still exist today.
And then right before I left for college, I became involved with a public housing community in the inner city – widely known as the worst place in Tampa, Florida. I spent a week with those kids for a camp and I never stopped going back.
I went to Kenya my first two summers of college and I watched people starve to death. I walked through one of the largest slums in the world and smelt the raw sewage as it flowed in streams a few inches from my feet. I spent weeks with refugees who ran for their lives in the face of a massacre and then started over with absolutely nothing.
I know poverty, and knowing it has lit a fire in me that I don’t think will ever burn out. But I also can rank that poverty, and as the years have gone on, I’ve learned there’s one kind that is worst of all.
Emotional poverty – the state of lacking love – starves the soul, and without our souls, we are reduced to absolute emptiness. Food, water, shelter, clothing, money or success mean absolutely nothing in comparison. Emotional poverty is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest crisis.
As a Christian, I’ve always said that, but as a journalist, I’ve now seen it. I hear it again and again in interviews – that people do things to find love, to find acceptance, to find meaning and identity. Sometimes they do good, honest things, but sometimes they do terrible things because love isn’t offered to them in good places, or they just don’t know how to find it.
I’ve experienced this in the public housing community I mentioned before. There’s one example that stands out vividly in my mind of a kid who was 10 or 11 when I met him. He was chronically behind in school, not very fortunate-looking and lived in a single-parent home with multiple of his older siblings.
As the years passed, he didn’t get much better in school, and he started hanging out with the wrong crowd in the neighborhood. He’d give me a quick hug when no one was looking, but otherwise, I saw him less and less.
One day, he was being exceptionally moody and was clearly angry about something. When our morning activity was over, I followed him to the playground and found him crying alone near the monkey bars. He wouldn’t look at me at first when I asked what was wrong, but finally, he told me: His mom had left the house without telling him, and he didn’t know how he was going to get to football practice.
He had been left. He was 11 or 12 at the time, and his mom left while he was outside playing.
Clearly, this isolated event was laced with underlying meaning and has a lot of background to it. But for a kid who has grown up feeling inadequate, unimportant and unloved, it only makes sense to cling to the first place he finds acceptance, even if it’s wrong. It’s for this reason that kids join gangs, that racism and tribalism exist and that wars over unresolvable differences happen.
I don’t see Nehemiah anymore, but I see plenty of other kids who are just like him. And they’re not all poor in a material sense. Some are my Young Life kids, who have everything they could possibly want, but feel no love and struggle to push away the fear that they are, in fact, worthless. Some aren’t kids at all – they’re young adults who are sprinting away from whatever might tell them that they are inadequate. And some are adults who never stopped running.
I’m writing this on the day that should prove to us all that we are, in fact, more than adequate: we are loved more than we could ever possibly imagine. We were made in love, with love in mind, and with the assurance that we would never stop receiving love. We are loved enough to deserve desperate measures, specifically one desperate measure that’s meaning has carried through 2,000 years until now. We are loved in the details, in the big picture, in the day-to-day and eternally.
But some people don’t know that. Some people haven’t heard, some don’t understand, some don’t believe it and some just can’t accept it. A lot of days, I don’t understand, I don’t believe it and I can’t accept it.
In an interview, a massive man – a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office – with the voice and demeanor of a grizzly bear told me to read a poem. And so I did, because if a man like that tells you to read a poem, you’re going to do it because he told you to and because you want to know what could touch a man like that so deeply.
Here it is. I understand why he told me to read it.
Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.