Being Grown up in this World

It's not easy to become an adult in a world full of injustice and hard choices. We get to invite our grown children to be with us in figuring it out.

I came home one day to discover our grown foster son in the living room trying to help his younger cousin, who was slipping into diabetic shock. Luckily I had some experience and knew what to do until help arrived. After the ambulance pulled away down the street, we breathed a sigh of relief that the immediate emergency was over. Then we sat down on the steps, trying to figure out what to do next, and reflecting on the hard choices that life presents us with.

Since Paul now has a stable living situation, including employment and parents with a house, food, and money enough to not always worry, his less economically-secure friends and relatives look to him for help. This cousin who was staying overnight is homeless and unemployed--blameless and clearly in need of support. Yet neither of us was eager to take on the parental role. The last friend who stayed with us started out with gratitude and good intentions, but ended up spending his days and then his weeks watching TV and leaving dirty dishes for somebody else to clean. It was a puzzle. When do we offer out of our relative abundance, and when do we protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by other people's needs?

Paul was torn between wanting to help, wanting to protect us, wanting to protect his own newly-created and still somewhat fragile adult time and space, wanting to avoid creating a comfortable dependency that could go on indefinitely. I was torn between wanting to make sure we didn't protect ourselves too much, wanting to help Paul not get overwhelmed, and not wanting to get stuck with another goal-less idle young person.

How do you figure out what you owe and don't owe to people in need? We had a lot to talk about. I wanted Paul to understand how much it was just the luck of the draw that left my husband and me with education and earning power. While I appreciated his desire to protect us from free-loaders and low-life, I wanted him to understand the danger of protecting yourself so vigilantly that you lose a sense of common humanity with folks on the street. Paul talked of the seduction of middle class comforts to people who haven't experienced them, how having those comforts easily available can derail them from the next steps they need to take in their own lives. We talked about how people need some minimum security, resource, and support to get out of a cycle of poverty, unemployment and despair. We talked about what it was like to withhold resources that we could share, and what was important enough to protect regardless.

These are hard questions. I don't know if they get any harder. They were some of the very questions that our family struggled with in deciding whether to invite Paul into our lives eight years ago. Now he and I were the responsible adults, sitting out in the sunshine and puzzling together over our response to another young person in need. Although it was not easy, something about it felt very, very right.

We finally worked out what we--he individually and our family as a whole--could offer his cousin that would be of real use to him, and that was neither too much nor too little for us to be able to live with in the long haul. And then we just sat on the steps a bit longer, being alive and grown up together in a complicated world.