How far would you go to help someone you care about? Would you let them, or rather, would you goad them into attacking you in front of a police officer if that were the only way they could get help?
This was not a scenario I would've ever dreamed of until I met a guy I'll call Cliff. Cliff was a guy who I had enjoyed getting to know, who had some drug problems, but who was always kind, honest and real with me. And Cliff was always upbeat; or he was until his girlfriend, let's call her Lila, went back into a cycle of paranoia due to an untreated mental illness. The last time I saw Cliff and Lila she was obviously not in touch with reality, and Cliff was hurting. He pulled me aside and said that he had taken her to the hospital, but they wouldn't do anything. He had even called the police on her, but they couldn't do anything either. So he told me that he would have to do what he had done before to get her treated: call the police, and then get her to attack him in front of them by playing into her delusions. As soon as she went into custody she would begin to get treatment.
One of the things that I did not think about when we started the Good Samaritan Cycling Team was mental illness. I thought about what we'd give, what we'd say, how we might serve people, socio-economic and racial issues in our cities, and all kinds of things. But I didn't think about mental illness. That was a big mistake on my part, of course, because there is no separating homelessness from mental illness. The statistics are overwhelming: a huge percentage of homeless men and women have significant mental illnesses. Some estimates put the number as high as 50% (See NAMI's Report Here). It's not that I didn't know this. It's just that I, like so many others, live a life cordoned off from the brutal reality of the mentally ill living on the streets in our cities. It is because of my separation from these brothers and sisters of mine that it did not immediately occur to me that I would need to prepare myself to face this reality.
Now let's get really personal for a moment: why do we live lives cordoned off from these sorts of realities? I think the answer is simple: they are unpleasant. Working with people who have not showered in days, who are delusional, and who are potentially hostile is not pleasant. Perhaps even scary. It is disturbing to meet someone who is totally disconnected from reality, and the impulse we feel in those situations is to get away as quickly as possible.
This brings us to the key question. What is stronger, our desire for security and comfort or our compassion and mercy? Compassion and mercy shown from a safe distance are just sentiments; true compassion and mercy call for us to leave our security and comfort behind for the sake of the one in distress. This is a lesson, or a test, which I have been faced with often through the Good Samaritan Cycling Team. Some days I succeed in leaving security and comfort behind. Some days my mercy and compassion are shown lacking.
So how can I, or can we, improve here? How can we more often move with the impulse of compassion instead of self-protection? I think the answer, at least as far as I've faced it, is both very simple and very difficult. It's that whole "surrender yourself daily and trust in God" thing. If we regularly entrust ourselves and our well-being to God then He will help us to stop being so self-protective. He will give us the courage needed to act. But He needs us to give Him the job of protecting and caring for us first. Then, and only then, can we walk like Jesus, who had no problem pressing into uncomfortable and insecure realities to show mercy to hurting people.
NOTE: Please don't read into this that all self-care and protection is bad. It's not! I certainly recognize that people find themselves in unhealthy, abusive and destructive relationships and situations and need to get away. I am speaking to situations where we have the opportunity to show mercy and compassion in service to God versus serving our own desires for security; I am not speaking to situations where people are being harmed by others and then told they have to "show mercy" instead of seeking justice.