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Comfort Zone

12/16/08 5:55PM By Dennis Delaney
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(HOST) 'Tis the season when winter winds howl, tires skid on patches of ice, and our thoughts turn to Reaching Out with a friendly hand to neighbors in need. This week, during All Things Considered, VPR commentators are joining a station-wide effort to consider how we can help each other through the holidays, the winter, and hard economic times. For commentator Dennis Delaney, this sometimes means reaching beyond our natural comfort zone.  

(DELANEY) Years ago as a young man I worked as a teacher in a university in northern Nigeria. It was a very tough time in that country: a civil war was mauling one part of the country, and ethnic tensions between neighbors and friends polluted civility elsewhere.

One day I drove to what passed for a post office. As I was getting out of the car I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and there I was face to face with a leper - only this leper had no face. He held his hand out to me. I was stunned, and, more than that, I was scared.

I bolted for the post office at more of a run than a walk, but not fast enough to escape the wave of shame that washed over me. Here I was a do-gooder in a remote corner of West Africa, but when a moment to reach beyond my comfort zone snuck up on me, I bolted in fear.

That shame made me turn around, walk back to the leper, and put some money in his hand.

Now fast forward to Vermont, where we have a tradition of being generous to one another. But there's another kind of generosity that challenges us. It's reaching out beyond our comfort zone to the different or even the off-putting, like the leper in Nigeria. That generosity may even be laced with potential failure, and it's hard to take that risk.

Three years ago I began mentoring former offenders who are trying to make their way back into society outside prison walls.

Few of us want anything to do with felons. Most of them feel forgotten and struggle with hopelessness, low self-esteem, depression, and lack of basic needs. One offender told me that what was most important to him was simply being in a "warm place."

There are no rules for mentoring offenders except to put your judgment on hold. If you don't you will surely fail. Just be a friend and earn trust.

One morning in Burlington I met a guy I mentored for coffee, and then we walked up Church Street together. Suddenly I noticed that my friend was no longer beside me. He had stopped to give some money to a homeless man; and there I was, the straight arrow guy who had run away from a leper, standing open mouthed in the middle of Church Street - and learning another lesson about reaching out beyond my comfort zone.

Some offenders will actually re-offend just to go back to prison, where they can depend on a warm place to sleep and three square meals a day. But if we can stretch our generous spirit beyond the usual limits, that might happen less. And who knows what we might accomplish together if we can manage to set our fears aside?
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