The Value of Feeling Valued

One of the best parts about my position at Maryknoll is that I am constantly reaffirmed in the work that I am doing. Just this morning, I received an entirely unexpected thank you card from members of a JustFaith group at which I spoke recently, with handwritten messages from each member of the group. I also sent out the monthly newsletter from the Maryknoll Northwest, and almost instantly received positive feedback, first from a priest with whom I am friends, and then from the director of our Maryknoll Western Region.

I mention these things to highlight the value of this sort of positive reinforcement, and to contrast it with the lived experience of so many. When I was a teacher, positive feedback was often difficult to come by. Schools can be very isolated environments for the people that work in them. In too many, teachers do not get many chances to observe others teaching or be observed in the work that they do. The only people that really see how these teachers are performing on a day-to-day basis are their students, and, as anyone that knows young people can attest, they tend to be too wrapped up in their own concerns and development to recognize the contributions of adults. Thus, teachers are often left to reassure (or diminish) themselves without any outside acknowledgement. That's a tough road to travel, and one not only traveled by those that serve. Indeed, often those of us that do serve, even if we do not receive enough direct acknowledgement, can still fall back on the love of our friends and families, our past successes, and a general sense that we are of value to the world.

This is not necessarily so for many. I will always remember the first time I met one of the students from my homeroom in Birmingham, AL. She was with her mother, who first introduced herself, and then her daughter, whom she labeled as "lazy." Now, I am sure that my parents had accused me of laziness more than once as an adolescent, but I can't imagine them introducing me as such to a new teacher - or to anyone, for that matter. This is not a condemnation or judgment of this parent, but simply recognition of the reality in which so many people find themselves - unacknowledged and devalued. In fact, though it may be tempting look at this situation and pass judgment, we devalue the world's poor and oppressed in much the same way every day by ignoring their plight, supporting policies that harm and exploit them, and in any way not viewing them as our own brothers and sisters.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus gives value to the overlooked and oppressed merely by being present with them - sharing meals, entering into their homes and other domains, and simply treating them as human beings. We know this, and for thousands of years people have struggled to follow this example, yet it is still the most difficult hurdle to peace and justice in our world. Once we not only encounter, but join with those most in need, treat them as equals and allow ourselves to be treated as their equals, then the passion to reverse the injustices of this world is almost impossible to suppress. And, indeed, Christ definitely challenged the socio-political norms through dialogue with the designated leaders of his community, just as we must do with our own leaders, be they elected, appointed, or simply recognized as such. But that, especially in our age of free speech and open dissent, is often the easiest part. I, for one, would feel much more comfortable debating local policies towards the homeless than sharing a meal with a homeless man on the street.

Ironically, though, the aspect of Christ's ministry that we find most challenging to live out is also the most immediately rewarding and effective. People feel when you love and respect them, and the effect, especially from those that do not expect that sort of genuine acknowledgement and esteem, is immeasurable. Conversely, the ways in which we are enlivened and altered by such an openness of heart is almost indescribable, and also serves to guide us through the long, often tedious work of effecting lasting change. Affirmation is a gift that many of us have received time and time again, and one that we would do well to share with others. But we cannot genuinely affirm people without knowing them, and without putting ourselves in a position to need that affirmation from them as members of our community. In short, we can not serve people without meeting them AS people, and that can be pretty scary, especially when there is a certain amount of safety in viewing ourselves as somehow separate from those that have suffered most. But, of course, we are no different.