This post was written in celebration of Sarah Bessey’s beautiful new book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith (released November 3, 2015) and linked up through the #outofsortsbook synchroblog. Check out my Goodreads review here. Out of Sorts is available at Amazon and anywhere books are sold.
When I worked as an editor of children’s books, I took great satisfaction in correcting all the mistakes.
For three years, I scrutinized book drafts at all stages, made notes in the margins, crossed out many words and added a few, and fixed countless typos. Every time we sent the final proofs to the printer, my eyes were bleary from the work. And without fail, the shiny new book showed up with at least one mistake to haunt me.
Although I could have pointed the finger at handed-down, last-minute revisions and real time constraints, I mostly blamed myself and resolved to usher out a flawless book the next time around. It seemed, though, that the imperfection didn’t bother our target audience. We received many more fan letters gushing about the characters and stories than smug notes asking, “Did you know there’s an extra word on p. 23?”
Years later when I signed up to be a mentor at Friends of Guest House, I was eager to make a difference in the social justice realm, in my own community, and with a population for which I had particular concern. Ever since I first watched Dead Man Walking, I’d been interested in prison ministry and reform, so mentoring female ex-offenders seemed like the right fit. Plus, I figured my practical skills in writing, editing, and research could be helpful for the job search process.
As it turns out, when you are working with ladies who’ve spent months or years behind bars, rehabilitation is not as simple as fixing their resumes and marching them off to get a job. A history of poverty, physical or emotional abuse, alcohol or drug addiction, sporadic or no employment, and mental illness weighed down most women. And there was the fact that many businesses wouldn’t consider hiring a person with a felony on her record. The women needed more than quick fixes if they were going to survive and thrive in the outside world; they needed the confidence that, despite the odds being against them, it was possible.
So we took it one meeting at a time. Sometimes we practiced computer skills and made lists of potential jobs. Other times we navigated the daily drama of living in a house with nine other women. (So. Much. Drama.) Often we just chatted: books, current events, our families, pets, church. We celebrated good news like a job interview or a visit from family and talked about strategies to handle complications and setbacks. Some of the women didn’t want to meet with me at all; they would disappear at our scheduled times, barely answer my questions, or act like it was a waste of time. One mentee even fired me, which was equal parts disheartening and amusing, since our meetings were mandatory, and free. Usually, though, the women and I warmed up to each other over time.
I began to realize that even though it was important to encourage the women to make progress on their to-do lists, it was more important that they not get overwhelmed during the process. Severe discouragement would lead them back to feeling desperate and making bad decisions, continuing the cycle. It all boiled down to showing the women that they were needed and wanted in the outside world, even if they didn’t have all of their problems fixed and everything figured out. (Because really, who does?) The only way I could deliver that message was to show up consistently and sit with them for a while.
It’s not about producing the perfect book; it’s about getting the right message across. It’s not about fixing all the problems; it’s about doing the best we can and accompanying each other through the imperfection.
I used to think the world was full of problems to be fixed; now I think the world is full of people to be loved.
- In Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, his memoir about working with gang members in Los Angeles, Fr. Greg Boyle offers story after story attesting to the importance of standing with “the despised,” as he calls them – those people who tend to be demonized. My favorite line from the book: “All we could do was surround him with love and the promise of rebuilding.”
- For a giggle, check out the hoity-toity final sentence from my grad school admittance essay: “After I have studied the strategies and policies that seek to uphold our country’s core values of freedom and justice, I am confident that I will be an invaluable asset to the public sector. So I will stick to my guns and follow my passion—editing, revising, and tweaking—to eke out a better version of the world than the current draft.” I have since stepped off my high horse.