I had a face from the past drop by the office this week, a woman whose husband I had prosecuted for assaulting her on several occasions. They had one of those relationships that is doomed from the start to end up as an item on a Court docket. He does not hold his liquor well and has a mean temper when he drinks. She, while not exactly being crazy, has a mind that tends to wander off the beaten path and get lost in the underbrush. She stopped by to ask a few questions because she thought I had spoken kindly and truthfully to her those several years ago when her file was part of my caseload. If you are in any kind of public service job, you have met people like her, and after a while, you cringe when they come in. You know that whatever you can do, it will never be enough to fix what is wrong, and, in the meantime, they are taking up time you could use on a solvable problem. As it happened, she had picked a good day to stop by, and I was able to take a few minutes and talk with her. I don't think I changed anything, but it was good to have the chance to hear her out and leave her with a little dignity. I was thinking of her, and all the others who walk through my door, while reading in The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann and ran across this entry:
What is the most frightening aspect of social work, administration, power? It is the gradually growing indifference, a certain passive cruelty. In order to satisfy everybody, one way or another, one must limit each, reduce one's rapport with each to a minimum, until it becomes impersonal. Each person demands everything. The mystery of Christ: giving Himself totally to each one.
To my regret, I don't find in myself the self-giving of Christ in the face of the needs around me. Another great Christian writer of our time, the late Vassar Miller, nails the problem exactly in one of her poems:
I dip a cautious foot in the Atlantic
Of generosity, yet keep my wits
To draw it out in time before I panic.
I give myself away by modest bits
In crumbs fed birds of dainty appetite.
I give my love out in judicious doles.
Mine is the wise man's, not the widow's mite,
Leaving in my largesse enough loopholes
Through which I may escape if necessary
To practicality. For, though no miser,
Conservative and not reactionary--
I shun those few whose goodness is a geyser,
Who cannot comprehend a balance sheet
And fling their lives like pennies at God's feet.
(If I Had Wheels Or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller)
Prudence is a tricky virtue for a Christian. It is far too easy to be foolish when you should be prudent. Perhaps, easier still, to be prudent when you should be a fool.