Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Can I Do?

I fear my comments will sound like a rationalization, and perhaps they are, but I came across the following sentence in the latest "Harper's" and would like to share it.

"I shall always believe that our own humanity depends upon the accuracy with which we are able to perceive the suffering around us, and to be witness to it."--Richard Selzer, former surgeon and professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine.

How might this be a rationalization?  Because it makes simply standing by and feeling bad equivalent to taking action.  I have always wondered if that is enough.  The same issue of "Harper's" contains an essay by Wiliam T. Vollman in which he gives an account of his efforts to help the homeless in Sacramento, more specifically in his own backyard (actually a parking lot he owns).  Vollman, 51, "feels sorry" for the motley crew that camps out on his doorstep and, despite police efforts to run them off, allows them to stay and befriends some of them.  He even goes out from time to time to camp with the homeless himself at various campsites and church basements, sleeping sometimes on the bare earth.  He seems to me to be a man who is living his beliefs, in deed as well as thought.

We all know people who do what seems to us incredible things: doctors who eschew a lucrative practice to serve on Native American reservations, social workers who deal with families in crisis, a coach who donates a kidney to one of his players.  Should I feel guilty because I don't want to do any of these things?  I don't think so.

I've pondered this issue for a long time and am still not sure I have completely settled it in my own mind, but for now I am inclined to say that extraordinary sacrifice that brings you actual suffering is not required in order to be a moral person.  I'd better define what I mean by "actual suffering."  I don't necessarily mean physical pain.  Women in childbirth feel pain, but I don't consider this "suffering."  It is a condition of life to feel pain.  Not everyone who accepts it is a hero, nor is everyone who avoids it a coward.  I guess what I mean by suffering is anything that breaks your spirit, that makes you feel helpless or deeply depressed.  If I were a physician (fat chance), I could no more practice on a reservation than fly.  Living in relative isolation in what to me seems a desolate landscape would kill my soul.  I was a teacher, and I loved my job.  Some people say they could never be a teacher in a million years.  Does that make me morally neutral because I enjoyed teaching?  If I hated it but did it anyway, would that make me a better person.  No.

I'm not religious, but I'll borrow from the Bible anyway, as it contains much wisdom.  "The Lord loves a cheerful giver."   Recognizing your own limitations and needs is perhaps the first step toward living a moral life.  Doing those things you WANT to do, with a passion that comes from somewhere deep inside, is what you SHOULD do.  This is not to say that we should never do anything unless we want to.  Of course there are many times when we shouldn't put our own convenience first, as every parent well knows.  But the big heroic acts, the grand gestures of altruism, should not seem heroic to those who perform them.  We do the things we do--donate to charity, donate blood, give to the Goodwill--because it makes us happy to do them.  And that is right and proper.  For most of us that is enough.

There is still something more we can do, however, and I think it's more important than most people realize.  There are times when simply bearing witness is the only moral act possible.  I read a story once (by the writer who used to work with Merchant and Ivory; I've forgotten her name.  Ruth Something) about living in India, where streets teem with homeless, desperate people and suffering is visible everywhere.  The narrator was advised to imagine herself living atop an elephant, but she was never to look at it or acknowledge it was there.  The elephant was the starving hordes upon whose backs the privileged lived.  The only way for the rich to stay sane was to ignore the truth.   So many times I've heard people say, "Well, there's nothing I can do, so I just won't think about it."  I've felt that way myself plenty of times.  But my point is, there is something we can do; we can acknowledge the suffering of others, accept that it exists, and be sorry.  It may not be much, but I believe it is a moral obligation nonetheless.