The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 10, 2022 - 10:53:55

Mrs. Jellyby vs. St. Teresa of Calcutta

Devra Torres, Sep 08, 2016

One of the many good ideas I never really got around to implementing was to celebrate Mother Teresa's canonization by doing something for the poor.

Which poor? I didn't know. I guess I had in mind the faraway poor--certainly something more glamorous and unique than leaving canned goods in the basket in the lobby of St. Mark's, around the corner. If I had gotten around to it, I'm afraid I would have announced it on Facebook, too. I wouldn't put it past me. I would have felt funny about doing that--because surely if your right hand is not supposed to know what your left hand is doing, you can extrapolate to "and don't blab it all over Facebook, either." But I probably would have told myself I was publicizing it to encourage others to do the same. I probably would have believed me, too. 

But it really doesn't matter, because I didn't get around to it.

Now compare this tangled mess of utterly fruitless mental gyrations to the true Mother Teresa approach. People would come up to her and ask, "Mother, what can I do?" and she'd say, "Go home and love your family."


We should help the faraway poor. Of course we should. We shouldn't use family as an excuse to neglect distant people in awful, desperate situations, especially brother and sister Christians being persecuted and exiled and tortured. But we don't help them instead of attending to obligations nearer at hand. Otherwise a lot of us well-meaning people could end up like Mrs. Jellyby, a Dickens character famous for devoting her life to unfortunates in Africa while her own children wallowed in avoidable squalor.

Dickens, of course, says it better:

Mrs. Jellyby, sitting in quite a nest of waste paper, drank coffee all the evening and dictated at intervals to her eldest daughter. She also held a discussion with Mr. Quale, of which the subject seemed to be--if I understood it--the brotherhood of humanity, and gave utterance to some beautiful sentiments. I was not so attentive an auditor as I might have wished to be, however, for Peepy and the other children came flocking about Ada and me in a corner of the drawing-room to ask for another story; so we sat down among them and told them in whispers "Puss in Boots" and I don't know what else until Mrs. Jellyby, accidentally remembering them, sent them to bed.

Go home and love your family. Come on. You'd think a world-famous Nobel Peace Prize winner could come up with something more original than that, something on a little bit of a grander scale. You'd think she'd know how to talk about "building rapport with targeted population segments,"  or "targeting resources to appropriate communities,"  instead of falling back on corny, amateurish jargon like "children" and "home" and "family." 

But where does this weird illusion come from, that makes me imagine that what goes on in my own house, my own family, doesn't "count"? It's not that I object to loving my own family--who would argue with that? Maybe it's that I've tried to love my own family--and I do! Don't get me wrong!--but I've also failed, over and over, to love them effectively. Something in me would really prefer to try something a little different, something that, just maybe, I can succeed at for a change, Something that sounds a little more impressive. 

But if the world is full of people like me, we'll never get anywhere.