This past week I corresponded with a reader, a 23 year old philosophy student in England who is converting to Catholicism. He spoke of how working with the homeless as a volunteer for a year caused him to lose his idealism. He described himself after that experience as “an idealist mugged by reality,” and himself now as “a cynic mugged by faith.” I asked him, for the sake of this blog, to tell me what it was about his experience serving the poorest of the poor that destroyed his idealism. Here is what he wrote. Inasmuch as he is a reader of this blog, I will insist that any criticism of this writing be expressed civilly, and without ad hominem attacks. I found this moving and challenging:

I never knew what I wanted to do at school. My brother always knew. He wanted to write stories about worlds that didn’t exist, or plays about situations that probably did happen at some point. I just wanted to leave school. Being a teenager wasn’t enjoyable and I remember looking forward to becoming an adult and doing something worthwhile. Anything worthwhile! But looking back I didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant or how to do it.

University seemed a poor choice when I didn’t have a subject in mind or a reason to go. Instead, with some prodding from my parents (they would say encouragement but it amounts to the same thing, though I don’t doubt they thought it would help me) I signed up to be a full-time volunteer at a local charity at a charity providing shelter for young homeless people. It meant moving 130 miles north (a long way in England to someone who had always lived in a stable family home!) and working night shifts.

It was… Traumatic. I knew I would be working with those on the margins of society but it never really dawned on me what I was doing. Drug addicts, street criminals, prostitutes, very often a combination of the above. I came from a loving, secure and close family and I understood within about a week that I didn’t relate to these people. Some who I came to know dropped into the conversation that they had children (plural) who they hadn’t mentioned once in 10 months. And they were my age.

It took leaving before it struck me that they weren’t in society’s margins. They were a society of their own. I came very close to giving up almost weekly for the whole year but each time my parents encouraged me to finish what I started. They were right to do so but it hurt like hell. The residents didn’t want to change. They didn’t get why people like me were volunteering. And they didn’t care. I was as alien to them as they were to me.

What was worse about this year was my gradual (very gradual for an 18/19 year old kid) understanding that there was almost no boundary between the residents and the volunteers. The volunteers (who I lived with as well as worked with) would drink themselves senseless regularly, take drugs and get pregnant with alarming regularity. I covered shifts while the volunteers went off to have abortions (a moral situation I found more than unexpected!). What made it (probably) illegal was that volunteers and residents would engage in this behaviour together.

The gloss on the world chips away very easily when you’re that young. Being assaulted and having things stolen from your bag by the people you’re trying to help is one thing. Being laughed at by the other volunteers because I was quiet, introverted and different from them was harder still. What made me different? A Christian upbringing in a small house in the country. That’s it.

I was the only person I know who lasted 12 months. And it’s strange to be so proud of finishing something I hated. I was an idealist who had been mugged by reality. I did another 2 years scrabbling around London (during which time I found a slither of my faith again). In what must be the slowest mugging of all time, I became a cynic mugged by faith.

‘People are great, as a concept’. With this in mind I decided three years ago to go to university to study philosophy. My plan (I was still only 20/21 and still hadn’t learned about ‘plans’) was to discover what I thought. I have in a way. The ancient Greeks were a revelation, as was Kierkegaard and the existentialists. In still trying to work through the trauma of That Year I found that faith became harder and harder to leave out of questions I was seeking answers too. I read Chesterton and came to admire the 16th century poem ‘My Friends, The Things That Do Attain’ by Henry Howard as works that seemed to resonate.

But I won’t pretend I have answers. I don’t know how best to help the homeless and vulnerable, or bring virtue into society. I don’t know the meaning of life or whether my understanding of God and His will is correct. I know I want to be a Pilgrim or a Peasant – to see all there is to see in this beautiful life or to live simply as part of it (the two appear mutually exclusive to me, sadly!). I long to have a family of my own and be defined as a husband and a father. How? No idea.

One answer I think I can give though is how got over seeing the gloss chip away: I didn’t recover; I grew up.