Saturday, September 09, 2006

Just 'Cause

Many years ago, I read a book called The Past is Myself, an autobiography by Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who married a German man in 1932 and lived out the Second World War in Berlin. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the book occurs when a desperate Jewish family seeks shelter; Christabel takes them in for the night, but at her husband’s insistence, sends them on their way the next day. That soul-crushing decision is deemed necessary to protect not only her husband but also several other highly-placed members of the Resistance who could be implicated if she were caught harbouring Jews. All of these men were arrested – some executed – after their failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

That incident has lingered in my memory because it places two kinds of activism at odds with one another: there is Christabel’s desire to help the two people who are right under her nose – her "neighbours," if you will – versus her husband’s ultimately futile involvement in a broader political solution to the same problem. What do you do in that situation? Do you help the individual, or do you focus on the revolution?

In theory, I plump for the latter, often with some acerbity, as when I teach Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel A Little Princess. A Cinderella story, the novel follows the heroine, Sara Crewe, from riches to rags, emphasizing her unchanging saintliness throughout. Sara ought to be the poster girl for Ayn Rand’s theory that there is no such thing as altruism: her acts of charity are palpably motivated by her need to recapture her lost racial and class privilege. She identifies with Marie Antoinette and thinks longingly of her days in India when servants would call her "Missee Sahib," their foreheads almost touching the ground when they salaamed to her. Cold and hungry, she gives five of her six hot buns to a little London guttersnipe, telling herself that she is "scattering largess to the populace." When her fortune is restored, Job-like, at the end of the novel, she sets up a subscription at the local bakery to provide all the hungry little children with hot buns when they need them – a stunningly stop-gap solution to conditions of child poverty that Burnett describes vividly while denying the possibility of long-term social change.

Theoretically, there should be no conflict between the two approaches: involvement in political causes does not in any way preclude individual acts of philanthropy, kindness, and support. Nevertheless, in practical terms most people seem to be drawn by temperament to one or the other. Organizations like World Vision assume that most people prefer to help an individual – in practice, World Vision helps an entire village, providing schools and wells and medical care, but they package that in individual sponsorships, knowing that people want a photo to put on their refrigerator of the "foster child" they’ve adopted in a developing country. I think they’re probably right – probably as many as 80% of us prefer to help individuals, while the other 20% are drawn to the big causes – they are the crusaders, the militants, people who get things done and aren’t always comfortable to have around.

I have a friend like that, one who devotes enormous energy to the causes that are important to her. Last winter she invited me to a baby shower she had organized to benefit a local crisis pregnancy center. I packed up some extra baby supplies I had lying around the house and then hid them shamefacedly at the back of the gift table which was simply groaning under the weight of the attenders’ enormous generosity: little blue Carter’s onesies, sweet beribboned dresses, diapers, wipes, carseats, exersaucers – even a brand-new StorkCraft crib. The speakers included a woman who had benefited from the centre’s post-abortion counseling, a single mother who had received support during and after her pregnancy, and the director, who outlined the really important work the centre was doing, explaining for the benefit of her audience that "in order to get to the babies we have to go through the mothers."

There was so much that was horrifying about that evening, and yet my reaction was complicated. I was incredibly moved by stories from the women who had been helped by the centre’s programs, none of which are available elsewhere in the city. And I was bemused by the assumption that people would be motivated not by their desire to help vulnerable women but rather by their opposition to the evils of abortion. My friend opened the evening with a little quiz: she described several women in an escalating set of terrible circumstances, culminating in a young homeless girl facing an unplanned pregnancy. Would abortion be a reasonable solution? she asked, before unveiling the identity of these unborn babies: John Wesley, Ludwig van Beethoven, and finally – you guessed it – Jesus Christ. Setting aside how manipulative and blatantly illogical this argument is (what if it had been the mother of Adolf Hitler? Would abortion be a reasonable solution then?), I wondered why my friend focused so intently on preventing abortions while I preferred to focus on helping women and their children. A woman once told me, in all seriousness, "Oh, I’m very opposed to evil." I remember it because it seemed so comically self-evident – isn’t everybody opposed to evil? But now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I’m all that opposed to evil: I would always rather create something good than defeat something evil.

I don’t know what "cause" to adopt in response to Her Bad Mother’s call to action. I think I may be uncomfortable with causes, though I’m grateful for all the people who do not share my discomfort, who stir up trouble, who man the barricades, who change the world. Maybe while you guys are doing that I’ll be over here in the corner, handing out a few hot buns.


Antique Mommy said...

Another very thought provoking post. I admire those who have the spiritual and emotional and physical energy to go out and change the world in big ways. I guess I'm more like the person walking along the beach throwing star fish back in the ocean one at a time. Even at time, sometimes as I'm trying to do something altruistic and helpful, I'm wondering if the star fish isn't saying "won't you please leave me the hell alone!?"

Veronica Mitchell said...

I have always remembered Henri Nouwen's advice that it is more impolrtant to love and help the people who come in your path than the grand causes. He eventually gave up much of his career and focused on caring for a single mentally handicapped adult.

Also, your story makes me think you might like these folks.

Lisa b said...

ah you have just trampled my childhood memories of The Little Princess. I did not dare take that Children's Literature course as my non-science option. Do any of them pass or do they drop out once they realise what they have gotten in to?

I think the cause you mention is an important one. I agree that it is better to focus on helping the mothers and families. Often church groups seem to get involved in this type of work and the evils of abortion get talked about rather than other issues. I don't get it either.

Her Bad Mother said...

That's the whole problem with the language of 'causes' - it evokes privilege and largesse. It speaks of something that we 'take on' to make ourselves feel good/feel better/feel.

But so I think that 'action' is a better, if vaguer term. Handing out hot cross buns is action. Writing about handing out hot cross buns is a sort of action (despite Ms. Steinem's warnings, I think that pen - or keyboard - can be mighty.) Loving our children is action.

I do think, however, that we are uniquely situated to advance certain forms of action with our support. Because I have readers, I can direct more people than I otherwise would to learn more about the disease that my nephew is dying from. Others raise awareness of breast cancer. Grace of State of Grace has raised buckets of money for Hurricane Katrina survivors.

I'm not saying that we should all rush out and save the world. Just that we share our buns, and maybe look for ways to get more buns out there. (No puns intended but you're welcome to make of that what you will.)

bubandpie said...

Lisa - Childhood memory trampler? Yeah, that's me. (I get some very passionate defenders of Sara Crewe.) And the science students do very well, on the whole, though there is occasionally some difference of opinion about what ought to be considered a good mark.

Veronica - I have made far too many resolutions to read Henri Nouwen and somehow never followed through. I think it's time.

Julie Pippert said...

Ah Passive Activism versus Active Activism. I blogged about that once.

Not terribly nicely, I don't think. But honestly. (Would Steinem be proud?)

I guess I'd have to admit to being a cause person, big or small, but I don't like that word. I prefer, plugged in. I keep my eyes open for when and how I can be involved with the people I share the world with. Sometimes, it is simply taking a casserole to a neighbor with a new baby. Other times it is spending all day every day doing hurricane relief for weeks on end. Each is just as important, in the grand scheme. Small gestures can be huge, or grow and pass along. Big gestures are important at times.

As for Little Miss Crewe...she is a product of her time. Lady Largesse doing her Duty by her Villagers. I think your view of it is a tad cynical. But I see your point.

This is because while working with hurricane victims (before getting conked by my own hurricane) I found there is no end to the depravity of conditional condescending altruism. Some people saw it as one big chance to dump crud and were shocked and infuriated when it was rejected. People, even those in devastation, don't want crappy handouts of YOUR choosing; rather, they need a hand up with assitance of their choosing.

They aren't there to fulfill YOUR need, you are there to fulfill THEIRS.

This is why I think your point about working for one cause instead of grouping together in opposition is a good one. The root of the help is angled in a self-serving way in one case, and in an actual serving way in the other.

I always say, this could be me, what would I want? Dignity, something that comes from within. Beyond that, I'd want the respect of my dignity, despite my circumstances.

I aim for that and hope I hit it, I really do.

Crud, you've reminded me of a second anniversary which I have also been blocking this time of year. Now I feel compelled to blog about the hurricanes last year. Oy.

Julie Pippert said...

Okay hmmm bad HTML there. Sorry.

My link to my post about activism should look like this.

Sorry. Losing the war to keep brain cells, I guess. LOL

penelopeto said...

I think that's why the saying goes, 'Think Globally, Act Locally.' It's hard to commit to just about anything outside the realm of duty if you don't feel like you'll ever see results.
As for the lady you know who is fighting the perils of evil; can't say I agree with her definition of evil, but it gave me a chuckle and reminded me of a sticker I once saw of a swastika with a line through it - No Nazis, it was saying in essence. I thought that sentiment was an obvious one, but maybe that's just me...

Kristen said...

I thought this was a good response to what was initially, in my opinion, a haughty and self-important "assignment". There are different definitions of "causes" depending on one's circumstances and life experience. And if we choose to write about those it should be because it comes naturally and from a place of genuine concern or passion, not because it's the latest trend in the blogosphere. I think quietly handing out hot buns is noteworthy, as opposed to trying to incite big movements or "direct" people and thus increase our site traffic.

Em said...

I'll be with you (in spirit) - quietly handing out the buns in my corner of the globe.

Kvetch said...

Yes, a very thought provoking and informative post. I'm not cause-related either. In my world I am most interested in helping out with what directly effects my children right now. That may seem short sighted, but I do not forget about the future or the ozone layer, I just don't focus all my attention on it. I'm much more concerned with sitting down to dinner as a family, and supporting my kids through school. Sometimes I feel selfish, but sometimes I think I know my limitations. And sometimes those over-zealous involved parents use lots of baby-sitters.

Julie Pippert said...

I feel tacky, Ms. Bub and Pie, and I apologize for turning your comments into a discussion (and link) forum. Bygones? :)

(Or feel free to quash or edit or ask me to puhleeze give it a rest LOL. I will respect your wish. On the upside, it's a compliment, honest it is, that this is such an interesting topic.)

Kristen, for myself, personally, I find that if I am involved in something it is a passion all the time already. Simply being asked to speak on it is not following a trend, it is accepting the opportunity to shine---for a brief second, to all 5 of my readers LOL---the limelight on something I already care about, deeply, and can pontificate on, at length, immediately and happily. I find myself puzzled why you assign such a nefarious intent to the call her bad mother posted, or to anyone who would follow it. My intent would be, simply, to care in writing instead of just in action. I actually spent about a month doing all of this a year ago. I do agree that there are different definitions of causes, and all action is noteworthy. I also agree that writing about or following a call to action to help should come from a genuine place, but whose to say what that is, or how it comes.

Em and kvetch, what is valued? what is valuable is my reflection on every action we take to the good---greater, individual, large, or small, being very valuable---even if it isn't broadly valued. Sure it's nice to build a homeless shelter, but it's also good to kiss your child awake every morning. You don't have to link and read...I'm not really plugging, or don't mean to be. I'm just trying to share thoughts and ideas.

Pieces said...

My problem runs deeper than the question of individual or corporate activism. I suspect that deep down inside, I don't believe I can ever effect change, of any kind, at any time.

It is an enormous character flaw that I am desperately afraid of passing on to my children.

Girl con Queso said...

That's weird that you brought up the Christabel Bielenberg book, because I've read it as well as was just thinking about it the other day.

It's an interesting point...creating good vs. combatting evil. Different shades of the same color. Different motivations for the same action. But in the end, isn't it really about the action.

You may think your actions are meaningless and that they won't help, but that is no excuse, you must still act. -- Gandhi

And handing out hot cross buns is an act. Writing is an act. Bringing up something in coversation is an act.

MotherPie said...

You always capture issues well! I think we all must make our communities better because of our presence but using our gifts in the process....

bubandpie said...

Julie - No worries! Link and comment away.

I'm thinking a lot about all the comments here - about learned helplessness, and motives (what are mine? and do I make charitable assumptions about the motives of others?), and how to balance my limitations against my responsibilities.

And let me add that - Sara Crewe notwithstanding - by no means do I subscribe to Ayn Rand's theory of altruism, though I've been juggling about various rebuttals to it over the last day or so (none of which made it into this post). The rebuttal that sticks with me the most is that altruism has to do with how much of our happiness we invest in the welfare of others. But which others? And where do we draw the boundaries? Or, as someone else put it, Who is my neighbour?

crazymumma said...

I remember speaking with a neighbour about the issue of abortion. One she thought was Absolutely Wrong. She then went on to say that her Aunt had HAD to have one, as she was ill. And that was Ok. But she refused to understand the other reasons women get abortions. I find that mentality smug.

As to the book, I think I will look for it. I need a good read. My Mother was a Mussolini youth(and it haunted her always). Her Mother was part of the Underground in Rome. She had some very interesting stories.

Aliki2006 said...

So many good things have been said already--but I agree--there are many ways to act and I do believe that action of any kind is better then total, helpless, and apathetic inaction. I try to tell my students that it is better to research and write about a horrible act (a past or present genocide, for instance) then to do nothing.

As a side note--have you read Simon Wiesenthal's _The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness_? It's a remarkable book about evil do-ers, forgiveness and our ethical responsibility to do something--albeit even a small gesture--to help combat the evil in the world.

Kristen said...

julie pippert - I agree with what you're saying - that a cause that is genuine to your heart is something that you are always passionate about. The problem I had with the HBM call was the tone of direction and authority, as if she herself is the one to be credited with the causes being spoken about. I think you highlighted the point I'm trying to make when you said that you spoke/wrote at great length about your cause(s) on your blog long before HBM "called us to action". You didn't need that call to action - you had it within yourself, as we all do. I just felt it was condescending and self-important. Anyone who chose to answer her call made their own choice to do so, and I don't fault them in any way for speaking out about something important to them, regardless of what sparked that communication. I felt Bub and Pie's words both answered the call and suggested that there may be some questioning we should all do about that call.

Beanie Baby said...

I think I'm one of those cause-ridden people who makes others uncomfortable--would you like to borrow one of mine? There's lots to go around.

(this was a joke, btw)

Did you ever read--now I can't remember her name, the Hip Mama creator--her essay about each person putting in their one small stone, if that's all they can handle? And if we all do our bit with what we can do, it'll add up.

Mommy off the Record said...

Great post, and a lot of food for thought. I have always struggled with this myself--that is, whether to work in a career that serves the public at the "ground level" or whether to work in a career to try to change systems to help people. I ultimately found my work in public policy--trying to change policies to better individuals on a larger scale, but I often wonder what good I'm really doing. Whose lives are really changing as a result of my work? And in those moments, I really feel like my time would be better spent handing out "hot buns" at the local food bank. But ultimately, I agree that both approaches are needed. Both are vitally important.

mamatulip said...

Hey, someone's gotta hand out the buns. ;)

You are a fantastic writer.

Robbin said...

Delurking to add:

Never underestimate the power of handing out buns.

A grassroots movement by friends and friends of friends helped us far more in Katrina than FEMA and the Red Cross ever DREAMED of doing. The big charities were startingly ineffective. It was single individuals, motivated by tenuous connections and empathy that sent us boxes of diapers, clothing, and gift cards. One woman I barely knew in Arizona sent me brand new clothes in my size, straight from the catalogue. The church I was baptized in sent me the result of the Sunday collection plate. You have absolutely no idea what that kind of personal contact means to somebody who has lost everything. It isn't just stuff - it's hope for a normal life.

Yes, there is a lot of "dumping" that occured. A lot of people forgot that we were trying to maintain some dignity - we were not people accustomed to taking charity. But there were also amazing acts of generosity that stunned me, because I don't think I would have done them for a complete stranger.

I have tried in the year since to pass on that gift of selfless love, of agape, one person in need at a time. Before I donated to charities and attended fundraisers. Now I reach out to individuals - friends of friends, neighbors, and people I barely know - who are in need. I now know how powerful one woman, handing out buns can be.

If we want to get all literary about it, its a lesson from Candide I should have learned long ago.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I've been reading your comments at Beanie Baby and just had to come check out your blog, hope you don't mind.

I'm not a cause person either. I just do what seems to need to be done -- that which is easy to identify and w/in my power to do.

I absolutely love this post as a response to HBM.

bubandpie said...

Beanie Baby - Oh yeah. You're definitely one of that world-changing 20%. And reading your blog is never comfortable - but you wouldn't want it to be, would you?

Robbin - Wow, yes. Your comment reminded me of how moved I was by the kindness of all the church ladies (distant acquaintances for the most part) who took the time to bring me a meal after the Pie was born. There is something inspiring and moving about seeing the face of the person who's lending that helping hand.

Jennifer - Welcome! (As if I would MIND - heh heh.)

molly said...

Here's a quote from the Talmud:

Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.
The Talmud, Mishna. Sanhedrin

No contribution is small, because even the smallest of contributions can have large consequences. The good you do has a ripple effect.

Going back to the original post, the Jews who Christabel turned out, who knows what ripples that decision caused. As for the men her husband protected, they were ultimately unsuccessful. If Christabel's decision had been otherwise, what would the outcome have been then? I weigh in on the side of the small solution, because I believe that in small solutions lie larger solutions.

I'm a nurse, and I help people one person at a time. Some of my peers had a conversation one time and discussed their disappointment in our profession. They thought they'd change the world, but they hadn't. How sad for them. I thought I had changed the world, only not in huge and earthshaking ways, but in small ways. For each life touched for the better, that life was able to touch another for the better, and so on. I think this equalizes the value of contributing to large or small causes. It's simply a matter of choosing which way you want to go.