Moving Forward With the Impossible

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 5:52am
Photo by John Moore

Moving Forward With the Impossible

When I was in my twenties and living in NYC, I volunteered at a Catholic Worker house on the Lower East Side. The Workers at Mary House lived with the poorest of the poor, providing food, shelter, health care and other forms of direct aid, while also working for economic justice.

One of those Workers was Kassie Temple. A brilliant writer with a Ph.D., she could have had a comfortable academic career. Instead, she devoted her life to doing what she could to keep hungry and homeless people from starving or dying of exposure to the elements.

I had never seen poverty of the sort I saw at Mary House. I was overwhelmed by the numbers of people who came through the breadline every day bearing the marks of deep suffering. And every time I returned, a new tidal wave of misery had washed over the place.

One day I asked Kassie the question that had been vexing me: "How do you keep doing this hard, heart-wrenching work when you know you'll wake up tomorrow to problems that are as bad or worse than the ones you're dealing with today?"

I've never forgotten Kassie's answer:

What you need to understand is this — just because something's impossible doesn't mean you shouldn't do it!

I'm still trying to live into words I heard 50 years ago. Please take a moment to reflect on those words and ask yourself the two questions I ask myself: Where we would be if the Kassie Temples of this world hadn't taken on the impossible time and time again? What task is calling to you — at home, at work, in the larger world — that you need to embrace even though it's impossible?

"Christ of the Breadlines"

(Fritz Eichenberg)

P.S. The woodcut, "Christ of the Breadlines," is by the Quaker artist Fritz Eichenberg, who created it for The Catholic Worker. When I hear idolatrous blather about the "Christ" who wants us to go to war, or arm ourselves in self-defense, or achieve personal wealth with no regard for others, or stand in judgment of those who don't share "our" beliefs, I look at this image again. In the way only art can do, it speaks the truth...

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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I work to create jobs for ex-felons. Many tell me it is impossible, yet, I KNOW deep down that God would not create a vision within my heart that is impossible. I pray each day that I am able to do the work necessary to take the next step. As I am willing to open myself to asking for help, I see miracles happening. I am blessed to have the courage to ask for help and pray that each person who helps is able to see how they matter in this world.

I remember Joanna Macy saying to Krista that despite her fears about what we are doing to the planet, she remains committed to environmental work. She made the analogy that you wouldn't stop visiting your mother in the hospital because she was fatally ill. A tough image and another that challenges us to do the impossible. Wish I could say it as eloquently as Joanna Macy did.

That's beautiful...he sounds like Wendell Berry in the story. It also sounds like resurrection.

This kind of work seems like an impossible feat however each statistic is a person and that person has a name and a story to tell and the work that is being done makes a difference to the individuals that are touched.

Thank you for this exhortation, Parker. I'm at a time of personal transition, and these words really hit home.

Hello Parker. I only too recently found your weekly posts and today have given myself the time to go into the archives to read more. This reminds me of the story about the starfish.

The Starfish Story
Original Story by: Loren Eisley

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, "What are you doing?"
The youth replied,"Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them back, they'll die."
"Son," the man said, "Don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can't make a difference!"
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish,
and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, "I made a difference for that one."

That simple story has guided me in the work I do with the Lumad indigenous people of the southern Philippines, some of the most marginalized people of the world, where children die of malnutrition, child trafficking is all too common, people die of things easily treated in the U.S., and everyone I know there has lost a friend or a family member to the ongoing violence in the region.

The problems can often feel overwhelming; progress is slow and frequently swept away by the turmoil there. But I've also seen that we give the Lumad hope in the midst of darkness. Without that, people lose the will to live.

Keep up the good work. I feel blessed and nourished by your posts! Thank you!

So good to see Kassie remembered here. She lived a difficult and saintly life. Many of her writings can be found in The Catholic Worker archives.