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Anybody But Him
G.O.T.H.S. tackles its worst Catholic yet.
The original process for writing a G.O.T.H.S. piece, as of about three years ago, went something like this: I'd stumble across some unhinged online right-wing Catholic, usually in the course of my own dicking around on Twitter or YouTube, and then I'd start digging through any news articles and interviews I could find on them, and I'd jump into reading and watching their current output so I could understand their influence Catholicism today, and - this was the important part - I'd find all of the old stuff they had written, either in published books or stuff they had listed online. To the extent that I thought anyone would be interested in reading G.O.T.H.S., I thought that what would make this project unique was that, first, it would be funny, which would set it apart from a world of Catholic media and blogging that was almost entirely humorless. The second thing that would set G.O.T.H.S. apart was that it would go through the back catalogs of the crackpots out there, the folks that Catholic media weren’t taking seriously; they were right not to take these people seriously in a theogical sense, but I anticipated (correctly) that everyone was passing by an enormous treasure trove of really good - very niche, but still good - comedic material, and because I was (am) just a guy dicking around on the internet, I could just go find the laughs in places where Catholic media wouldn't waste their time.
Of course, that meant I actually had to read all of that stuff, and parts of that mission were harder than others. I didn't want to read Taylor Marshall's unreadable Infiltration. Randall Terry's A Humble Plea is the worst thing I've ever read for the project, and also in my life, both in terms of content and style. I really dragged my feet on reading Abby Johnson's book Unplanned (which, while not to my taste, was surprisingly not terrible), and I really really dragged my feet on watching the film adaptation of Unplanned (which was terrible).
But there was always one assignment I dreaded doing, one book I really didn't want to revisit, even though I first outlined this piece over a year ago, wrote a draft of it in January of this year, sat on it for nine months, wrote another draft, and sat on that for another month. One book and one author that I knew I would have to cover eventually, that I really, really did not want to. But before we get there, there are a couple of other, much better books you should know about.
The Catholic site Word On Fire runs an occasional feature titled "A Chapter That Changed My Life", where a writer dives deep into a specific chapter of a book that has an especially resonant meaning for them. I think it's a cool concept for a series. Of course, I don't write for Word On Fire, because they have no idea who I am. And if they learned who I was, they wouldn't let me write for them, because they'd probably figure out that I once wrote a piece where I said that their founder, Bishop Robert Barron, "looks like a ham who got surprised," and then later wrote another one where I referred to Robert Barron as the "future star of a live-action biopic about Mister Potato Head", and then wrote another piece where I said that Robert Barron “begins every public-facing action and statement with an implied "oh yeah, well would an idiot do THIS?"” and "looks like a giant Beanie Baby doll of the one owl who wasn’t smart enough to wear a graduation cap". And also, if I remember correctly, Robert Barron is kind of busy with his own problems right now and perhaps is not taking on a lot of new writers at the moment.
But I’m not here to talk about Robert Barron, who soaks all day in hot dog water like a stupid sticky version of the bad guy from Dune. I want to talk about the chapter that changed my life. There's only one real candidate for me: "I Know I Am Rich (USA, 2005)", the chapter with a message that every Catholic and every Christian needs to hear: helping people does not feel good, at all.
"I Know I Am Rich (USA, 2005)" is the twenty-first chapter of Poor People by William T. Vollman. Vollmann is an unusual guy who's written approximately four hundred fiction and nonfiction books that are each about a thousand pages long, and at one point the FBI was pretty sure he was the Unabomber (he wasn't), but he's perhaps the single most important moral philosopher alive today, for the simple reason that he's witnessed more suffering than basically anyone else in the world. Throughout his career, he's traveled everywhere, listened to everyone, and written down everything. Everything from war zones, to nuclear fallout areas, to sex workers, to municipal water board officials, have been subjects of Vollmann's writing, and Poor People is not especially complicated in terms of structure. Vollmann travels around the world again, finding the poorest people in the world - Vollmann defines poor as “lacking and desirous of what I have; unhappy in his or her own normality” - and, with compassion and respect, asks them to tell their stories, specifically asking them what they identify as the causes of their poverty.
The book is, and I mean this as a compliment, exhausting. Visits to Thailand, Japan, Yemen, Pakistan, Colombia, Mexico, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and, of course, the United States lead to interviews that are disconnected, self-contradictory, and wildly different in tone. And why should we expect anything else? Poor people don’t have the time or energy to do detailed sober analysis of the root causes of their poverty. They’re trying to stay alive, in circumstances we can't even imagine. Sometimes, you take comfort in the hope they manage to hold onto. But a lot of the time, reading all of this is pretty bleak.
You certainly don’t walk away from these chapters with the sense that anyone is going to get out of poverty any time soon. And Vollmann clearly isn’t trying to solve any of these problems, he’s just trying to hear the poor out and record them in their own words. So you read 150 pages or so of that, and then Vollmann takes you through his thoughts on the common traits he sees in the impoverished worldwide, and then you get to "I Know I Am Rich (USA, 2005)", which is about Vollmann himself, figuring out every day what he's supposed to do to address the suffering right in front of him. Because Vollmann, as it turns out, owns a tiny house in Sacramento that is across the street from a homeless shelter, which means he encounters poor people all of the time. They sleep outside his home and ask him for money and try to start conversations every time he walks out the door. Vollmann recognizes suffering and he responds to it.
Now, Vollmann is a much more compassionate and patient person than most of us are. If anyone is camped out in front of his house, he doesn't ask them to move unless they're literally blocking his door. He always introduces himself to everyone, shakes everyone's hands, learns their names. If his daughter is with him, he introduces her to them as well. He gives them money and food when he can. It's probably more than we would do in these circumstances:
"The previous summer people had been camping on my threshold, some in sleeping bags and some in tents. They smoked crack in lovely orange flame-flittings in the darkness; some of the women were prostitutes who did their business on the other side of the building. I welcomed them all and shook their hands. When my little girl was with me, I made her shake their hands, too."
And through it all, Vollmann does develop relationships with the people who camp out in front of his place. It's a radical hospitality that I think few of us would be able to sustain long-term. And, as the passage below illustrates, there is a sort of harmony and community that rises out of this. Vollmann is clearly working to counter the fear and uneasiness that would come to most of us when faced with someone so impoverished. But there's also a very telling sentence at the end of this passage:
"The people whom I do come to recognize tolerate me, joke with me, and, I fondly believe, like me. I believe this because I always tell them that they can camp here as long as they wish. Sometimes, when I know them and they ask me, and occasionally even when they do not, I will give them small things such as a bottle to get drunk on or a little money. I bring my little girl to greet them whenever she is with me, because I would not wish her to grow up disdainful of poor people or needlessly afraid of them. I am not afraid of the people whom I know…I always come out to them; I never let them in to me."
That's one very important part of the story that Vollmann will not let you forget. He has a heavy steel door on his house, and he can always leave the people in his lot, close the door, lock it, and not think about them, whenever he has to. He slams the steel door at the end of maybe a dozen paragraphs throughout the chapter.
And there are times when, if Vollmann wants to stay alive and unhurt, he has to have that steel door. Throughout the chapter, he's mugged and assaulted by the people who camp out in his lot. His house is repeatedly vandalized - and, often, shat on - and there are multiple attempts to break in. Vollmann doesn't move away, he doesn't stop shaking people's hands, but there are times when he is understandably concerned for his safety, and wondering how much of himself he's actually supposed to give to the people in his lot.
"I tried to treat them all the same. If I brought a beer for one, I brought beers for others. If I gave whiskey, I handed it to the nearest one and said that it was for all. Was that right? I was kind to them in ways that cost me little. Then I went across the parking lot and shut my steel door on them. Was that right?"
Again, Vollmann is helping. He's not solving homelessness, but he has made a few people's lives better for a short period of time, and that still matters. But doing it is, often, awful. But is it really supposed to feel good? It comes down to this set of questions:
"Must charity please me? Is it incumbent on me to feel a specific way, or do I demand a certain standard from others? If it feels like charity, have I failed?"
Do you want to be a good person? Do you want to help people in a way that matters? Do you want to recognize and respond to the suffering in front of you? Great. When you do that, do you expect to feel a sense of pride and fulfillment, a sense that you were good enough to do something that mattered?
Well, what if it feels terrible? And what if it's supposed to feel terrible?
Another important part of Poor People is when Vollmann lists out the sometimes-contradictory attributes he finds across impoverished people around the world: invisibility, deformity, numbness, unwantedness, pain, estrangement, dependence, and accident-prone-ness. These are what make charity and hospitality feel bad. You have to encounter people with these attributes, contagious attributes that make them hard to be around and that remind you that things aren't getting better any time soon. It's brutal and painful being poor, which means it's brutal and painful to try and put yourself in the lives of the poor. When you encounter the poor, their role is not to entertain or inspire you with their hard-won wisdom. Their role is not to be a prop in your story of self-actualization. When you encounter the poor, the only thing that you're guaranteed is that you're letting some combination of invisibility, deformity, numbness, unwantedness, pain, estrangement, dependence, and accident-prone-ness into your life.
Vollmann isn't a social scientist or a theologian, he's a journalist and novelist. He's interested in revealing these stories, not giving a detailed moral analysis. But Catholic theologian Kate Ward did just that in her excellent 2021 book Wealth, Virtue, and Moral Luck, where she explained that it's not just hard being poor, it's damn near impossible to be poor and a consistently moral person.
Ward's analysis looks at the virtues of prudence, justice, solidarity, fidelity, humility, self-care, temperance, and fortitude; her list of aspirational virtues stands in stark contrast to Vollmann's list of the observed attributes that the poor deal with every day. Now, these are all good virtues to have and to develop, but it's precisely because of the attributes Vollmann lists above that it's so hard to make virtuous decisions when you're poor, because all of your focus is on survival. You want to be a prudent person, someone who makes wise decisions with a view towards helping others and thinking long-term? Is that something you can really practice when you don't know if you can buy groceries next week? Can you effectively fight for justice if you're constantly crushed under the heel of injustice yourself, in a blighted neighborhood, where the state enforces the law violently, with no sign of help on the horizon, with civic and political systems that refuse to see you as a human being? The whole universe of moral decisions is severely constricted for the poor, which itself makes poverty even more painful and difficult to escape. The poor have moral shackles on them.
But here's where Ward's book gets really good: the rich have moral shackles on them, too.
A key part of Ward's analysis is her exploration of hyperagency, a term she borrows from economics and then expands into theology, and specifically understanding the lives of the wealthy. And Ward's definition of "wealthy" is deliberately broad; by defining "wealthy" as "having more than one needs", she arrives at basically the full inversion of how Vollmann defines "poor" as "lacking and desirious of what I have". Here's how to think of hyperagency:
"Wealthy people exert control in more areas of their lives, and the control they exert is more total, than is the case for people with more limited means…The consistent ability to achieve one’s goals through the resources of wealth influences perception of one’s own importance and expectations of control over environments and other people.”
In other words: say you're a person who's not experiencing poverty. You make decisions about what to buy, where to go, how to plan your day, all relatively easily. There aren't really external factors that can limit your freedom of choice, and you don't really expect anyone to stop you from basically doing whatever you want with your disposable income. But the decisions you make affect others. You actually have a significant amount of indirect power over the retail workers at your grocery store, the warehouse workers at your local Amazon distribution center, the farmers who grow your produce. You want your things cheap and fast, which means that somewhere, someone else is getting fucked over. Because of your consumption, other people get exploited or hurt or impoverished, and - this is the important part - you don't ever have to see that happen or really think about it at all. And there's no way out of this bind. If you want to quit everything and become Amish, okay fine, good for you, but that's still a decision you were able to make that others weren't, because of your level of comfort and wealth, and you didn't expect anyone to stop you from doing it.
So let's look at those virtues again: prudence, justice, solidarity, fidelity, humility, self-care, temperance, and fortitude. Can you practice prudence or justice very effectively if nothing bad happens to anyone at all within your field of vision? Can you effectively practice humility if you are in an economic system that basically allows you to do whatever you want whenever you want? Your entire moral universe is warped. Ward makes it most clear in her discussion of fortitude:
"Wealth bestows hyperagency, which can encourage us to become too easily frustrated when things do not come easily. It can also hinder commitment to goals by making it always possible for us to seek more appealing options."
That's the last part of hyperagency that's critical: hyperagency is also the ability to walk away from suffering with no repercussions. Hyperagency is Vollmann's ability to back in his house and shut the steel door whenever he wants, and nobody will begrudge him for it, because come on, we can't expect the guy to save the world. But how hard is he supposed to try? How hard am I supposed to try? And what about that time when I actually tried, gave up, and then wrote a shitty novel about it?
As I was saying, there was always one assignment I dreaded doing, one book I really didn't want to revisit, even though I first outlined this piece over a year ago, wrote a draft of it in January of this year, and then sat on it for nine months. One book and one author that I knew I would have to cover eventually, that I really, really did not want to. It is my own first self-published novel, Anybody But Us, released May 2016. It's about Catholicism. I'm very sorry.
Anybody But Us is not very good; I don't think you should read it and there are a lot of parts in there that make me wince today. I don't regret writing it or anything - I certainly learned a lot by writing it - but I just don't think it's very good in terms of structure. Some of the book is just long monologues by characters venting their spleen about things I just wanted to vent my spleen about; one chapter is just a character talking about that This American Life episode on school integration, which today makes me want to wap myself in the face with a newspaper and yell "NO!". The reader learns very quickly that I'm completely incapable of writing characters that do not sound exactly like me (I think this is part of why my nonfiction writing found a small audience and my fiction writing never did). I have a lot of passages where I just write about books I like; the protagonist is teaching To Kill a Mockingbird so he reflects on that a lot, and another character tries to sneak Vollmann’s Poor People onto his high school syllabus. I sent the novel to my friend to read before I published it and her main note was “okay, but what is this book actually about?” The plotting is not super-tight; the book is made up of forty-four short and loosely connected vignettes focused on five grad students and housemates in Chicago. The five protagonists are each volunteering in an under-resourced Catholic school for two years in exchange for a master's degree, which is a real program that multiple Catholic universities offer. The five protagonists are all based on real people. Actually, they're all based on the same person. Actually, that person is me, because, again, I can't write fictional characters that aren't based on me:
Brian is a second-year grad student trying to navigate the absurdity of his under-resourced school and class, and generally trying to keep out of everyone's way so he can finish up his degree without trying to think too much about how bad everything is. This is based on me at age 26. He is also coping with his stress by escaping into the sixth-grade-level books he used to read, which I suppose is a thing I'm literally doing right now.
Chris is a foulmouthed and moody leftist who rails against the appalling structural failures he sees at his job and his own feelings of powerlessness to change everything. This appears to be based on me now.
Rachel is a talented teacher who leaves after finishing her degree to pursue a corporate sales job, after realizing that there is no real way for her to actually make a career out of doing this. This is based on me at age 21.
Sarah is an idealistic first-year grad student with a passion for Catholic liturgical music, who slowly gets crushed by the very unforgiving Catholic education system (rest assured this is all done comedically). This is based on me at age 19.
Joseph is a new grad student and devout Catholic who loves his faith very much and is exploring teaching as a possible expression of that faith. This is based on me at age 17.
Now, as it turns out, working in an under-resourced Catholic school is often infuriating, depressing, and absurd, and as the title suggests, the five main characters aren't exactly models of selflessness. Not that they're bad or evil people, but they're all in their early twenties and don't know a lot about how the world works, and all of them fuck up left and right as they try to do the right thing. That's what new teachers do. I was one of them once, after all.
See, a lot of Anybody But Us is drawn from stuff that happened to me, and in a few cases stuff that happened to people that I knew. I didn't do a master's program, but I did a summer placement when I was in college, teaching at a Catholic junior high school in Saint Louis. I really did live with other people in a house where we were supposed to pray together and then go out and serve the poor. In the book, the grad students live down the street from an eight-year-old and six-year-old girl who came over all the time to play that old Pretty Pretty Princess board game; I did, too. One of the characters names her goldfish after liturgical music composer Marty Haugen; I knew somebody who did that. One of the grad students in the novel gets assigned to coach the lacrosse team and then accidentally destroys the entire lacrosse program; I didn't do that one, but my wife did when she was a high school teacher. And throughout the novel, there are a lot of dark jokes about Catholicism, or about teaching junior high students, throughout the book, and many of them are based on conversations I had with my fellow teachers.
But a lot of really shitty things happen to these five aspiring teachers, and these are based on real things, too. One of them has a student with a post-it in his file that read "DO NOT LET HIS DAD PICK HIM UP FROM SCHOOL", in all caps; I did, too. One of them has just a straight-up hole in the floor of one of their classrooms; you could drop a pen into the classroom right below you, and I had one of those, too. One of the characters has a co-worker who parks cars at a theater on the weekends because his salary was shit, and I did, too. There's a long chapter where one of the characters has to basically babysit a student on in-school suspension, slowly bonds with her over the course of the day, and then learns by email, as she’s sitting in the room, that she’s just been expelled. That happened to me. That was probably the day I realized I wouldn't be a teacher.
My summer placement in Saint Louis was too much for me, or, to put it more accurately, I wasn’t good enough to do it. I did my eight weeks and got out as quickly as I could. I was a stupid self-interested person who decided to get a real corporate job after getting broken by a broken system. And that’s what happens to the characters in this book: they get broken by a broken system, and some of them leave.
It’s hard to design a system more broken than Catholic education. While archdioceses are still the largest networks of private schools in the country, their entire infrastructure was built on the idea that you could just staff all of the schools with nuns, whom you didn’t have to pay. There aren't nearly as many nuns as there used to be, so now the infrastructure is built on teachers who are criminally underpaid in schools that are falling apart, because nobody in the church has any money anymore. So people get paid next to nothing to do hard, miserable work with students getting ground into meal by the gears of the world. When you do it as a young person, you don't get a thrilling sense of adventure or a fun vibe from being in the trenches with your housemates. The kids you teach do not say the darndest things that immediately lead you to a profound understanding of God. You have to open your life to invisibility, deformity, numbness, unwantedness, pain, estrangement, dependence, and accident-prone-ness, you have to let these things become part of your life. This work of direct service to the poorest among us - and it's important work - is draining, and painful, and it involves working with people who are unpleasant to be around, and it's often boring, and it's often hopeless, and the only people that can make a career out of it basically have to be literal saints.
Brian Wheeler, the main protagonist of Anybody But Us, is not a saint. He is finishing up his two years and torn between staying at his current school, on the verge of physically falling apart, or taking a cushy assignment at a more stable private school. His current school is LaSallian, a specific order of Catholics that begin all of their prayers by saying "let us remember that we are in the presence of God", and Brian repeats this to himself, basically as a nervous tic, whenever he's overwhelmed, or scared, or feels like a failure. Brian's housemate Rachel decides to take a cushy corporate job after getting her degree, and he’s bummed out by that because she was a good housemate and good at being a teacher. She tells him this:
“I can work long hours, with angry children, then come home and do four more hours of grading and planning a night, for next to no money and crappy HMO health care, in a job where I have to get re-hired every year, and where my school could end up shutting down anyways, because welcome to the Arch, or, like most young teachers, I could just leave teaching and take a real job, closer to home, where I don't have homework, don't have to pay for my own supplies, and can actually have a life and buy a home someday."
And Brian responds with this:
"Okay, yeah, I suppose when you put it like that, it's a pretty obvious decision. Or, I guess, if they treated teachers better, actual professionals would do this job, or people with experience, or people that are actually from the community, or…really, anybody but us, is what I'm trying to say."
The novel ends before we see what Brian decides to do with his life. I don’t like to think about what Brian would have decided, because I know what I decided.
In one of Vollmann's other works, Rising Up and Rising Down, he interviews a Catholic clergyman ministering in Jamaica, in the middle of a bloody gang war; we’ll go ahead and say this guy has it way worse than I did in Saint Louis. Monsignor Greg Albert does some amazing things - he built a leprosy hospital, he created a foundation to send more young Jamaicans to school - but he is still faced, every day, with overwhelming suffering. Many of the people he gets to know through his ministry end up dead or imprisoned. Most of his work day is spent making calls to move money around to pay hospital bills and post bail funds. He had to move uptown earlier in his career, because gang members kept throwing dead bodies on his lawn. But he doesn't stop doing it, even if he'll never see these problems fixed in his lifetime. If the job makes him miserable, he doesn't show it to Vollmann; he keeps his head down and does the job every day. I see him as a remarkable and stoic model of how to live as a Catholic. Vollmann sees him as noble, writing “Meager results: that’s life. Not to be deterred by meager results: that’s a kind of nobility: steadily scrubbing a bloodstain or two off the sidewalk.”
Here's the thing: I have cleaned up one or two bloodstains in my life. Maybe somebody else would have done it if I wasn't there, but I did it, and I'm glad I did it, and I think doing it was good. When I cleaned up the bloodstains, people didn't stop bleeding, but I can't be deterred by this. That's not the measure of success or failure I should be looking at, and in fact, I really shouldn't be paying attention to measures of success or failure at all. What I did mattered when I did it.
But here's a much bigger problem: in the course of cleaning up those one or two bloodstains, I said to myself "wow, cleaning up bloodstains really fucking blows, I'm not going to be compensated for it in a way that allows me to do it long-term without going crazy, and I could stop doing this and go do things with my time that make me happier and more comfortable." And then I did. And that's an indictment of me morally, one that my faith, and the analyses presented by Vollmann and Ward, force me to reckon with. I had, and still have, hyperagency, through the circumstances into which I was born. I used it to go back inside and shut the steel door, because being out cleaning up those bloodstains was unpleasant and uncomfortable. Being in the presence of God was unpleasant and uncomfortable, so I left.
Ward proposes several practical and theological solutions to re-balance our warped moral systems. One of the most important is the theological idea of encounter, and Ward describes it like this:
"Encounter describes a relationship where genuine self meets genuine self, a relationship that changes the person and her life…encounter describes both the physical meeting of embodied persons and the openness of the one in a position of power- the wealthy person - to be changed by that event."
Encounter is an absolutely essential skill to have as a Catholic. If you want to push back against your own hyperagency, you are going to have to let people into your life that you don't know and who are nothing like you. You are going to have to do that and let yourself be changed by it. And that’s why I left the teaching gig, not because I was bad at teaching - I mean, I wouldn’t say I was great, but I did a perfectly acceptable job - but because I was bad at encounter, I was bad at being around people who were nothing like me and who carried invisibility, deformity, numbness, unwantedness, pain, estrangement, dependence, and accident-prone-ness with them. I was bad at being in the presence of God. I was scared of it.
Pope Francis loves the word "encounter", in many contexts but especially this one. The word is all over his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, including here:
"The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters."
"The human person, with his or her inalienable rights, is by nature open to relationship. Implanted deep within us is the call to transcend ourselves through an encounter with others."
And also here:
""Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter”. I have frequently called for the growth of a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions…Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made."
Encounter is critical to building society, encounter is implanted deep within us,the art of encounter is basically the entirety of life. What Pope Francis never says is that encounter feels good or fulfilling, that it's the kind of thing you walk away from patting yourself on the back. When you practice encounter, you are opening the steel door of your life and letting in the things that instinct tells you to run away from. But when you practice encounter, as my fictional character (who was obviously me) reminded himself constantly, you are in the presence of God. How do you think being in the presence of God is supposed to feel? How do you think being in the presence of the all-loving, all-powerful creator of the universe is supposed to feel? Do you think you'd feel great? Like you definitely did all the right things that led you to be there? Or would you feel inadequate and scared and uncomfortable and horrified at yourself, feel that anybody but you would do a better job in your shoes in that moment?
It's not a great feeling; the natural instinct is to run from that, to keep yourself out of that situation entirely. Encounter is key to my developing as a moral person, and I need to push myself to practice this as often as I can. But encounter often sucks. Vollman's "I Know I Am Rich (USA, 2005)" is all about him practicing encounter, and he gets mugged, beaten, intimidated, and mocked, while people throw trash, piss, and shit on his building. Anybody But Us is (or attempts to be) about encounter, about forcing yourself to meet others in their poverty and be open to the realization that as you do that, you're in the presence of God, but all of the people doing the encountering in that book are very imperfect and the encounters themselves seem to leave everyone less happy than they were.
So how the hell do you get good at encounter, then? How do you get good at standing in the presence of God and not running away? Pope Francis calls it an art, and how do you get good at art? You have to practice it. Over and over. You have to force yourself to keep doing it even when you're bad at it, so that someday you can be less bad at it.
I have to practice encounter, repeatedly and deliberately. Because of where I am in my life now, I can’t do it the same way I used to, but I have to keep working on it any way I can. I have to force myself to do it, I have to keep sending myself out past the steel door and into the presence of God, and I will be bad at it, and it will feel bad, and I will have to keep doing it until I get better at being in the presence of God. I have to put myself in a position where I will be encountering and open to the poor, and the poor are not hard to find nowadays. I have no other choice. The need to practice encounter follows naturally from deciding to bet on something other than boredom and cruelty, from re-orienting your life as a response to suffering, from recognizing the causes of that suffering, and from accepting that you will not see the full effects of your actions in responding to those causes. If you accept all of that, you have to accept that encounter is your next step, and that encounter takes practice. I have to practice it whenever possible, I have to wire it into my muscle memory like I'm preparing for a piano recital, because someday - at a protest, at an accident, at some sort of altercation, when someone is camping out in front of my house, at some point when someone I don't know asks me to help them, at some point when my instinct will tell me to walk away but charity will tell me to stay - I will be called on to be selfless without getting to think about it beforehand, so I have to practice encounter as much as I can, I have to at least try and try and try over and over and over to be a good and charitable person at all times so that when I am called on to do it, I can eventually do it without second-guessing.
Practicing encounter can feel terrible. So I probably shouldn't try to do it by myself, I should probably surround myself with a group of people who will continue to push me to do it and hold me accountable when I don't and overall make me feel less alone in doing this very difficult thing. We might call that group of people a church.
I wrote about Vollmann’s nonfiction back in 2020, although the piece you’re reading now goes into more detail on this particular chapter.
Boy, they got lucky with that one.