The Personalist Project
Accessed on February 19, 2020 - 6:54:46
Lots of people are haunted by the sense that they’re not doing enough, not becoming what they were meant to be, not doing what they were put on earth to do. Their efforts seem pointless. For some, this worry amounts to an ever-present low-grade despair, lurking in the background.
There are plenty of possible reasons for this, but rooting out one particular misunderstanding has been especially helpful for me.
Faced with a crisis, a tragedy, or just a looming mountain of laundry or paperwork, it’s easy to get paralyzed for lack of knowing where to begin. Of course, we could begin anywhere. “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” says Woody Allen, and “Well begun is half done,” says Aristotle. (How’s that for strange sentence-fellows?) The idea that just beginning at all is a crucial step in the right direction is an ancient one—so what is it that stops us?
Here’s the false alternative that stops me: On the one hand, I could try to accomplish it all—but that’s impossible. In the words of Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat:
This mess is so big and so deep and so tall / We cannot pick it up. / There is no way at all.
On the other hand, I could do what little is in my hands—but that’s so little, it’s not worth bothering.
So I do nothing at all.
Maybe the problem is the suffering of refugees across the ocean, the education of my six-year-old, or the reclaiming of a storeroom stuffed to the gills with broken lampshades and worthless (or maybe crucial and irreplaceable) documents,
But what if I go ahead and start with some little part of it? If I want to help the refugees in Iraq, I can gather up the money in our pushke (Yiddish for “container set aside for accumulating alms”)
and write a check to the Knights of Columbus matching fund for that purpose. What will that accomplish? Very little. It’s mostly pennies. I might easily decide to skip it altogether. Then the refugees would get a little (just a very little) less help, my own soul would become a little (just a little) bit harder, and my children would miss out on a little (just a little) bit of good example and moral formation.
(Update: we did count the money, write a check in the amount of the pittance in question, find the address, address the envelope, find a stamp, and send it off. If nothing else, it has shamed us into a resolution to be more generous with the pushke from now on.)
The trouble is, if we take the do-nothing approach over and over, it adds up to enormous amounts of good left undone. I'm not capable of big dramatic actions, but if you add up all the little tiny actions I am capable of, it comes to more than you'd think.
Another thing to remember is, when we’re talking about unrepeatable human persons, you can count them, but you can’t quantify them: you can’t exhaust their meaning by considering quantity per family, country or planet.
So if it’s a question of solving some human problem, it makes no sense to evaluate an action solely according to how many people it helps. Like the utilitarians, we desire "the greatest good for the greatest number." But unlike them, we see the truth in the Talmudic saying:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Or as John F. Crosby explains it in the "about" section of this blog:
A human society is not a whole composed of parts, but rather, in the felicitous expression of Maritain, a whole composed of wholes.
Remember, too, the old story of an old man who comes across a little child on the beach after a storm. The beach is strewn with stranded starfish, and the child is walking around picking them up, one by one, and throwing them back into the water. The man inquires: "Why bother, since there are more of them than you can possibly save? What does it matter?"
The little boy looks at the starfish he's holding.
“it matters to this one,” he replies.
* * * * *
The mess is as big and as deep and as tall as it ever was. That doesn't mean we should make peace with paralysis. And maybe if we do the little that's in our hands, it will draw down more grace than we expect.