My relationships with my most trying pastoral cases tend to develop in a predictable fashion. I try to help, which often involves giving out a bit of cash, lay down guidelines, eventually refuse to hand out any more, and risk the accusations and attempts at persuasion which usually form the final stage. As I’ve said here before, I’ve given up trying to fight my way through the thickets of people’s stories: I simply set boundaries to what I will give. That seems less judgemental towards them, and less stressful to me.
We’ve been through this cycle now with Karly. I gave her £200 over the course of a month, and at the last instalment I warned her that would be the last until over a month had passed. I got another series of tearful requests for money by text a couple of days ago, which I refused. Eventually I worked out Karly’s mum was demanding £25 to allow her to stay in her house. Karly told me she might as well be dead: she denied she was playing the suicide card, just ‘thinking out loud’, which may well be true. I put the cash through her mother’s letterbox, so I was, technically, sticking to the line of not giving it to her. ‘Woman kills herself because priest refused £25’ is not something I want to read in the Surrey Ad. I tried to be firm and straightforward in what I said to her, not dressing up my refusal to give with phrases like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I can’t’, because neither of them were true: I’m not sorry, and I could. But some of my absolute rage almost certainly bled into that straightforwardness.
Yesterday I had more requests for money – long-distance ones, as I was in Dorset on my day off – and responded with absolute refusal which Karly clearly didn’t believe. She spent the night out of doors. This morning I called the social services about the situation and dropped a note round to the mental health team office, who social services said they’d inform. When I told her, Karly said she’d never trust me again and that I’d ‘made everything ten times worse’. I tell myself I just want to help, but perhaps I’m deceiving myself. God knows.
Why was I so very angry? I try to tell myself that what I do, whether I give or not, is what I choose to do and so I can’t blame anyone else, no matter what I might feel are the attempts to manipulate my reactions. Perhaps I am angry at being forced to face my own self-regard and meanness; perhaps there is anger at myself for going against my word. I am very far from being a ‘cheerful giver’: Louise Brooks’s words resonate with me, ‘I never gave anything away without wishing I had kept it, nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away.’ Either way, my internal conflicts aren’t Karly’s fault. I did what I chose to do, and Christ never raged at the poor and weak. Yet I do it all too often.
I don’t draw a clear line between me and these ‘vulnerable people’. The mingling of sentimentality, pleading, anger, and inability to help oneself, counter damaging patterns of behaviour or distinguish reality, isn’t all that far removed from traits I observe in myself. What I should perhaps do is to insist on first encountering somebody that I also interact with the statutory agencies dealing with them, and anything else is just laziness, a refusal to summon up the mental energy to do the hard work.