Step Away from the Guilt

by Alece Ronzino on November 1, 2013

Step Away from the Guilt 01

I was worried I’d grown numb to it. Maybe I’d become calloused. Hardened. Immune.

Because poverty wasn’t affecting me like it used to.

When I faced it as a teenager—on mission trips to places like Nicaragua and Botswana—my eyes and my heart were opened to things I never knew existed in the world. I was wrecked to discover such unimaginable and inescapable poverty, and it messed with me. I’d return home and make all kinds of extreme commitments. I vowed to be less materialistic. I took radical stances with my “self-absorbed” Christian friends. I soapboxed about America’s obsession with excess. I volunteered more, and served wherever and whenever I could.

But as the aftershocks of my experiences with poverty wore off, so did my radical life changes. Until my next mission trip.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It was a vicious cycle of the best intentions that did nothing more than fuel my need to continually strive to be better, do more, and—somehow, hopefully—be enough. I’m not saying I didn’t genuinely have compassion, conviction, and passion to live a life that makes a difference. I did. But it translated into a guilt-driven reaction to the extremes I saw and experienced, because I couldn’t reconcile the poverty I witnessed with the life I lived every day.

It was a nauseating roller coaster ride as I tried—and failed—to bridge the disparity between my abundance and their lack.

It was years after I moved to South Africa to serve in the poorest region of the country that I finally realized that those things can’t be reconciled or bridged. The contrasts will never make sense.

I mustn’t allow my guilt to force-feed my insatiable striving complex. Nor must I allow it to paralyze me into inactivity or apathy.

I finally learned to step off the roller coaster and actually engage in doing something that would truly make a difference. Not fueled by guilt, but by hope.

Step Away from the Guilt 02

I realized that it isn’t about being apologetic for what I have, giving everything away, or looking down on how much people spend at Starbucks. It is about stewarding what I have well—using it to serve, strengthen, and love others.

People often ask me how I could live and work for so long in a community of such dire poverty. “Do you just get used to it?” What they are really asking is the same thing I’ve asked myself: “Did you grow numb?”

And I see now that I didn’t. But somewhere in my 13 years of living in Africa, something did change in me.

I stopped feeling guilty about what I had and the “luck” of being born an American, and I started to feel grateful to be part of the solution.

The problems and challenges are enormous, but I am confident that we can all do something that makes a difference. In our own unique ways, with our own individual passions and talents, we can bring hope into places and hearts that gave up a long time ago.

Not because we feel guilty, but because we are compelled by the hope we ourselves have been given.

What’s been your experience with responding to poverty?

Alece RonzinoAlece Headshot

After pioneering and leading a nonprofit in South Africa for 13 years, Alece now lives in Nashville, TN. She is a Nonprofit Communications & Development Strategist, a freelance copywriter/editor, and the founder of One Word 365. She blogs occasionally but candidly about searching for God in the question marks of life and faith. Follow Alece on Twitter and visit her blog, Grit and Glory.

{Photos Source: Daniel C. White}

A previous post by Alece: Bring the Rain

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About Alece Ronzino

After pioneering and leading a nonprofit in South Africa for 13 years, Alece now lives in Nashville, TN. She is a Nonprofit Communications & Development Strategist and the founder of OneWord365. She blogs (occasionally, but candidly) about searching for God in the question marks of life and faith. Connect with Alece on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog, Grit and Glory.
  • Great post. Agh, I still run into this one all the time here in Laos! Love how you linked it to hope and being outward looking and focusing on moving forward. The last time I wrote about this issue directly was in this post about how I didn’t buy some lemongrass http://www.lisamckaywriting.com/the-day-i-didnt-buy-lemongrass/.

    • Such a poignant story, Lisa. And a scenario I faced weekly in South Africa… There are no easy answers, but I love your call to extend mercy…

      • No. No easy answers, which I thought your piece highlighted so well. Stay well.

  • Becky

    So well said! All those feelings I have had (and still struggle with in daily life) but your conclusions are the same. And even coming to those same conclusions, my heart still struggles with what I have vs. the poverty around me. I need to remind myself often to not feel guilty for what I have– for what God has blessed me with– but to use what I’ve been given well. Thanks so much for this reminder today!

    • “to use what I’ve been given well”… I think that’s the gist of what we are all called to do! (So appreciate your voice in this conversation, Becky. Thank you!)

  • Nikole MacGregor

    “I realized that it isn’t about being apologetic for what I have, giving everything away, or looking down on how much people spend at Starbucks. It is about stewarding what I have well—using it to serve, strengthen, andlove others.” I love this. Its taken me a long time to realize this truth and then live it out in my daily life in Canada and in Africa. Its hard watching people suffer but when I know I am being a good steward of the resources, materials, and skills God gave me, guilt definitely turns to hope.

    • “Its hard watching people suffer but when I know I am being a good steward of the resources, materials, and skills God gave me, guilt definitely turns to hope.” YES. Well-said, Nikole!

  • Alicia G

    So well said Alece! I just returned from Bolivia and one thing I was really struck by was the hope I saw in the people there. The ones running programs and reaching out into their community. I was floored by the problems but so inspired by the hope I saw and their passion to do what they could. That gap is hard to see and feel but you are right – it’s about stewarding well what I have and living out what God wants of me.

    • You’re right! Where at first we most obviously see lack, there is often hope and potential and joy bursting forth as well.

  • Richelle Wright

    you hit the nail on the head with this statement: “I stopped feeling guilty about what I had and the “luck” of being born an American, and I started to feel grateful to be part of the solution.”

    of course, some days that is easier said than done, but at least it is a perspective to try and hang on to. I also try and let those moments when I feel guilt to be ones of self examination – and ask if I’ve a reason to feel guilty – have I been stewarding my resources (including time) well?

    • That’s a really good way to turn those emotions into a closer look at our heart. And from there we have a choice on what comes next…

  • You speak the truth with such profound love, Alece. Thank you for your succinct transparency. Thank you for calling us to lay aside malignant guilt and pick up humble stewardship, instead. You are a gem!

    Poverty confronts us daily, as well, here in the polarized, urban city of Cochabamba. Recently watched a great 1 hr show made by some college kids this year who went to a tiny Guatemalan village and lived for nearly 3 months on $1 a day. Very interesting. Made for some fabulous discussions with my children. What started as a series of YouTube spots they turned into a film. It’s called “Living on One Dollar”. Highly recommended: http://www.livingonone.org/film.html

    • That film looks really great. I watched the preview clip and am really intrigued!

      And thank you for your kind words and heart toward me, friend. Means the world. Thank you for rolling out the welcome mat for me again today…

  • Brenda

    LOVE this post as I’ve been wrestling a ton with this topic lately! I’ve served as a church planter for ten years in Hungary but the last seven in a small village. No one, and I mean NO ONE, told us that we were stepping right into the heart of unemployment and poverty land. And I was not prepared. Not prepared that in the middle of EU Europe people are living without heat or electricity. Not prepared that new believers would show up at my door with an empty grocery bag and ask if I had any cash so they could buy food. And definitely definitely not prepared that I would have friends who would go through my personal trash looking for anything that they could sell or wear or eat. How do you reconcile that? And yes, how do I reconcile that some days it doesn’t hit me smack in the face like it used to? Most days I feel like I have a split personality. The American female side of me that wants to cry over the fact that my communist block super small “needy housing” apartment is so stinking ugly and the other side of me that feels mortified to tell anyone that I live alone in a “two room” flat. Yep, two whole rooms people when my closest friend has four kids a husband and teen brother and they are all hungry at the end of the month and sleep in two rooms themselves. So my tension in my heart over two rooms. Sometimes I think my brain is going to explode with the endless need and decisions in front of me about who and how to help. Especially when this wasn’t supposed to be our ministry! Anyway, that was a bit of a rant as I’m hijacking your post and probably nothing new to anyone reading this post. All that said I too wrestle with guilt but I’m learning to walk away from it as it does no good to anyone. I am not God and only He can meet the needs of everyone I know and love. I can be used by Him thought and as His voice and guidance grows clearer so does the peace in my heart.

    • So so hard, Brenda… Praying God would turn our guilt into grace — grace to extend to others as well as ourselves…

    • Kara

      thank you for sharing. your ‘rant’ somehow helps us all get a pressure release, I think. I pray we can all just serve humbly before God and expect/rely on Him to take care of it all. Who do we think we are anyway? 😉

  • Shona Mason

    This post was so timely for me and I thank God for it. I too have struggled as I work in the jungle of Peru. My sensitivity to the poverty left me vulnerable to manipulation too. Reading “When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the port…and yourself” was a painful and heart searching process. Last weekend God showed me that being manipulated because of my sensitivity was not just the sin of the person manipulating me (to give money, etc and making me feel guilty for what I have), but just as much was my sin for allowing myself to be manipulated; it was selfish and hurt others. Today I made a big decision, and acted on it. It was sad, but it was necessary for healing (for all parties, not just my own). Your post was a timely grace nudge from God to say, ‘it’s OK’.
    It is a long journey but God is so gracious with us all. This life is broken. We are broken. We need God’s grace in order to be able to help others without hurting ourselves and the people we try to help. How glorious it is to imagine the day when all will be made new.

    • So loved hearing your heart, Shona. And so grateful this was a timely message for you…

  • Pamela Ferguson

    Having been to Haiti many times now, I am just recently sorting through the guilt part. I prided prided myself on how I only now own 1 pair of jeans instead of 10. It somehow made me feel better, like I was willing to sacrifice and that made it okay that I have so much more than them. Yet. I still felt empty about it and carried the guilt. Sometimes struggling crazy hard to not press that guilt into my children. Because after all they should know how blessed they are right?! It was an insane emotional wave and really I was nothing more than a puppy chasing my own tail. I’ve just now started to get a grip on my holy discontent and you put it so beautifully understandable into words. Thank you. I will be rereading this often.

    • “my holy discontent” — that’s the perfect phrase for it. learning to live in the tension of that and not always try to “fix it”. because some things just can’t be fixed, not in the way I’d imagine anyway…

  • Alece, your voice here is so so valuable. Thanks for taking the time to share it here. I totally agree that guilt can be a major nagging voice in the field . . .

    And Oh. My. I loved this on so many levels: “I stopped feeling guilty about what I had and the “luck” of being born an American, and I started to feel grateful to be part of the solution.”

    • I’m beyond grateful that you’ve shared this space with me, Laura. thank you.

  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    Thanks for this. Sometimes we all need someone to tell us it is okay to live in this natural tension we live in, to embrace the hard parts. I am learning more and more every day to be okay with who I am and that I like to drink Coke and wash my clothes in a machine and sometimes really, really wish for a dryer too. That it doesn’t mean I’m loving any less. But when I exhaust myself with guilt, I am wasting the energy I should be using to love. But it is a constant battle. Thanks for articulating it so beautifully.

    • Wow, Colleen. You nailed it with this statement: “When I exhaust myself with guilt, I am wasting the energy I should be using to love.” So so good.

      And you’re right. It’s about giving ourselves permission to live in the tension. Not everything has an answer, a fix, a clear black and white solution. Sometimes things are just wrong, and we have to force ourselves to sit in that. To embrace the hard parts, like you said.

  • Tammy Ogden

    Wow. So well written and I love the comment driven by hope. Yes! That is what should drive us, hope. Hope we can use what we have been given to help someone else. If we use what we have been given we give hope and value to our blessings. I love that. Thank you. I work in El Salvador. I see poverty in the mountains that I can not fix but I can love. I can invest my life in others. I can touch. I can engage. Mother Teresa said the greatest poverty of all is loneliness. We can fix that, now can’t we! Be a friend!

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