Constructive Guilt – from Calcutta to the California Coast

I’m about to embark on my final lap of chemotherapy tomorrow! With three rounds behind me, I’m eager to finish. Each round has been a bit harder than the last, as I’ve had to let go of various freedoms… the freedom to be in the sun, to take walks and hikes, to mentally concentrate, to consider napping an occasional luxury rather than a twice-daily necessity; plus various maladies along the way, a few new ones appearing with each round. None of the effects or side effects has been devastating, but your continued encouragement and prayers are much appreciated.

I ended my previous meditation “Hooray for Guilt” with these lines:

I think it’s high time I start owning my guilt, living with it instead of denying it; even ‘befriending’ it, as in “There you are again, my old friend Guilt, coming to pay me another visit!”

…So now I say: Hooray for my guilt and for all its clever manifestations designed to get my attention and bring me back to my first priorities!

I’m Cory Trenda. I suffer with guilt.

I wrote part of that meditation while lounging on a beach chair next to our condo pool, with palm trees and brilliant bougainvilleas nearby. I was in the lap of comfort if not luxury. In contrast, I’d just seen a video showing family hovels in India crammed together against a filthy river bank, with flotsam and jetsam slowly floating down the fetid waterway. Why should I not, and how can I not, think about the dissonance? To not think about it is to deny its reality. Does denial lead to joy?

But what do we do with our feelings? Is guilt a curse, an invitation, a prompting or a bother?

I recently received the note below from a colleague in India in response to my piece on being a “Foul-Weather Friend.” (I’d be traveling with him in Calcutta this November, except that I had to bow out from the trip due to my cancer treatments.) His reply humbles me and is another reminder that it doesn’t matter how many “zeros” we have in our bank account; we’re each on our own journey, in our own place, with our own invitations to follow Jesus more closely…

Sometimes I go through a dark period of the following thoughts – Materially speaking, I am relatively poor, which makes me want more and I feel a little low at times. But living in a country like India, I am also relatively rich, which makes me feel like I am not doing enough to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. I feel responsible for the pointless suffering and death that goes on in my country. At the same time, I worry about beating rush hour traffic or some nonsense like that. While sharing this with a friend he made a suggestion: “When you feel like this, call the poorest friend in your contact list and ask him if you can help him in any way.”

I called a boy who had been a part of our World Vision programs; we have stayed in touch. He told me he pushed himself back into poverty by borrowing heavily for his wedding (Indian weddings are a big drain on one’s finances). I found out how much he pays every month in interest, and I told him I will pay for the next few months.

You wrote: “For decades, I’ve fancied myself a ‘foul-weather friend.’ I coined the term to express the idea that, while I may not be the most present pal when things are going great, I want to truly be there for someone else when things are not.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I read this on the same day I transferred the first installment of money to the Boy’s (now Man’s) account. I think God wants me to do this more often. He wants me to think not of what I don’t have but of what all I can share with what I do have. He wants me to be a foul weather friend and be more proactive about it, without waiting for people in need to approach me first.

At times like this I wonder: How can my simple words from my comfortable situation possibly speak to someone living in his reality? How would I feel if I were in his shoes?

On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum, I recently had coffee with a longtime major supporter and friend who lives in an exclusive beach-side community. He is considered a bit foolish by his peers. His real estate holdings provide affordable housing to hundreds of lower income families around the state and beyond. None of his tenants want to move out of his developments, as they are well maintained with rents below market value, often significantly below. Why does he keep his rents so low; because it’s better business to keep stable tenants? No, it makes absolutely no economic sense for him.

So what’s his explanation? “Because I already eat three meals a day.” He’s had these holdings for many years, and as he walks the Jesus Road he continues to ask what discipleship means for him. Others might argue “Make as much money as you can, and then you can give away as much as possible,” and in some situations that could be the best answer. But my generous friend recognized that God had given him a unique opportunity to serve a working-class, ethnically-diverse, immigrant-heavy customer base who struggle to live here, so he’s doing something to make that more possible.

I’m not faced with the same situation or choices facing either of these two men, who live half a world apart. They deal with their own feelings of guilt or understandings of inequality, and by not ignoring the discomfort they feel they’ve discovered an invitation, a prompting they felt would honor their faith and their humanity. Both examples are beautiful illustrations of “blooming where you’re planted.”

And while I have neither of their realities nor options, I do have my own unique reality, my own unique options. The challenge is that it’s uncomfortable to even consider putting those options on the table for consideration. Guilt can prod me to do so.

What are the options I’m unwilling to lay on the altar?

And what price does my soul pay for that unwillingness?

 

Cory

October 2019

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