Monday, February 13, 2006

Flu Reflections

I spent the weekend with the flu and Dorothy Day's autobiography, "The Long Loneliness".

I am struck by the vast difference between the world then (early 1900's) and our current world. Has human life ever changed more rapidly than in the 20th century?

Dorothy Day was Catholic, a non-violent social activist and a writer, who lived in Chicago and New York during prohibition (though bootleggers were plenty) and in a time when women were not allowed to smoke in public or to vote. Day went to work on a newspaper, reporting social injustice wherever she saw it. Labor Laws and worker's rights were largely non-existent (a 14 year old boy working 90 hours/week, injured workers left without compensation to beg on the streets, the poor working themselves to death and relegated to unsanitary housing). Most young social activists of her day were Communists (or the more benign, Socialist) and Anarchists and sometimes resorted to violence in protest of the corrupt social order, but to a large degree they were peaceful protesters who picketed or wrote and spoke against injustice. Still, almost all Dorothy's friends were arrested multiple times, and during this time some Radicals were tried and sentenced to death.

We have undoubtedly made social progress since then. Women have voting privileges (and I can't believe how begrudgingly I accept this right), there are child-labor laws and, despite low wages and run-down housing for the poor, there are laws governing minimum wage and work-week hours and there is compensation for occupational injury and medicaid and food stamps and WIC. It is helpful to me, to look back at where we've been and appreciate how far we've come. I would not dare purport that our current system is in all points just or that our existing programs are sufficiently effective, but we do a disservice to the remembrance of all who worked and fought for reforms when all we manage is to sit back and complain.

At the same time, I'm in a bit of a quandary when I think about our responsibility to carry on their work. The climate has changed so much. The world has changed so much. As I see it, at least two major changes make responsible social activism very difficult.

First, we have "specialized" everything and everyone. When Dorothy Day left her parents' home at 16, she attended University for two years, on a scholarship of $300 (semester tuition fees at the University of Illinois were $12.00), which covered books, tuition, and most living expenses. She took various odd jobs and living situations to cover the rest. After two years she took a job as a reporter with the Call, a socialist newspaper . During World War I she joined a hospital nursing program, which trained its students on the job, with three hour breaks in the afternoon for lectures and training seminars.

Today, a minimum of four years higher education is required to get a job in just about anything, outside of the most basic customer service jobs, and the cost of education is unattainable for all but the wealthiest few. An untrained person can't just volunteer to become a nurse and an eighteen year-old with "some college" is not going to land a reporting job, nomatter what kind of paper or what kind of writer.

The second obstacle to social activism is a prevailing social attitude that equates radicalism with lunacy or barbarism. Dorothy Day was arrested for a peaceful women's suffrage demonstration on the White House lawn; today picketing is associated with crazy fundamentalists in front of abortion clinics (who are often hauled off to jail just as Day was). We look, in retrospect, at her activism as heroic and necesary for social reform; why are today's activists on both sides of the political spectrum (Pro-lifers and Environmentalists) written off as mentally imbalanced or intolerant or at best, annoyances to roll our collective, enlightened eyes at? We are told that we can't "legislate morality". But then how do we procure change? Weren't Women's Suffrage and Labor Unions and the Civil Rights Movement exactly that, attempts to legislate morality, so that society would run by more moral laws?

In general, I see my life as being full of restrictions. I found myself complaining to a friend just the other day that I feel stuck in the "this is how things are done" rut, and I lamented my deplorable lack of imagination. I want to do something, but I don't know what to do. Whereas the world of 1915 was wide open, almost begging individuals to stand in the gaps and shape the future, the world of 2006 feels closed to me. If I want to help the sick I need training in the medical profession. If I want to help poor families or orphans or victims of abuse, I've got to become a "social worker". I don't even qualify to counsel pregnant teenagers, even though I was one 15 years ago, and have felt the weight of it every day since.

Maybe I'm being obtuse and looking at the roadblock instead of the grassy bank that winds around it. I know I can donate food and clothing to charities and I can help serve meals at a shelter. I can give money. I can pray. I can vote. I can practice kindness. Am I the only one who feels immobilized in the face of it all?

Although she eventually converted to Catholicism in her thirties, Dorothy Day rejected Christianity for agnosticism in her college years. Here is her account of it:

I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn't see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. [which she experienced in her childhood neighborhood] Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.

I want to understand my place in all of this. Certainly, Christianity as I have known it is far from this abundant life. Is there even a line of demarcation between the church and the world? When I was small I thought as Dorothy did and I was full of zeal to be Christ to a hurting world. Popular culture must have a sinister goal- or perhaps it is merely a natural side-effect- of squelching virtuous passions, while feeding destructive ones to bursting. I have tried to close my mind to its inundations, and still I find I have been mesmerized, sedated, lulled into a life of dangerous conformity and appalling self-absorption.

And I will probably join you, when you roll your eyes at me and tell me I'm being overly dramatic. And I will probably agree with all your assesments of "youthful idealism" vs. the "wisdom of age". And I will probably laugh when you say that the flu "went to my head" and concede that I "shouldn't be too hard on" myself. But then there are those disturbing Biblical words:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27 (NIV)


laura said...

Maybe the flu did get to your head. There's a job out there for everyone. Yes of course my dream job will require 6 min years of schooling, but I'm willing to do it. I guess it seems easier for me because I don't have kids or really anyone holding me back from moving.

While I was reading this, I couldn't help but think of the late Peter Jennings, had no schooling but wanted to be a reporter. The rest is history. So maybe you won't go the usual normal route...but to not at least try that would be the worst. I figure if you don't try, take some risks, you'll never know of that grassy bank that I truly think is there for all of us.

Well that's enough. I'm off my soap dish.

Rachael said...

Laura: I wasn't speaking of the restrictions to my having a fulfilling career. I don't care if I ever have a "career". I meant rather to emphasize that I feel befuddled, constrained and helpless to help people in need or work for social justice. For one thing, I don't know where to start. For another, I'm too conservative (or comfortable}. I find so many reasons not to look for opportunities.

But you are right, there is a way around; there has to be. A lot of motivated people find it. I, being such a recluse, will have to work harder to find it, but I have to find it.

Ron said...

I understand. This was wonderfully written Rachel and I wonder how many of us that are now well into our lives with families and finances and mortgages feel much the same way.

Biblical words like you point out in James are so hard. I often hate reading the beatitudes because I know how short I fall. I have wanted to change the world, I've wanted to be a Dorothy Day or a Paul Brand but find I often lack the courage, or motivation or ... something.

And, no, I don't think it's a quest for just the right career (though I could use some help there too!). I think it's a desire for, as Melissa often says, the world to be the way it's supposed to be.

I do think there is a grassy bank and I do think there's a way around, but it might be a little slippery and involve some grass stains.

I've thought of both you and Scott quite a bit lately. There is a group of us trying to start a school here in the city and I've thought you guys would be a great fit to be a part of it.

Rachael said...

Ron: Thank you for your thoughts. I think the answer has a lot to do with starting small or starting with what's in front of you or what's important to you. Such as starting a school, perhaps?

When Scott reads this he's going to be envious of you all; he'd love to be part of starting a school.

Jerry said...

Hey, Rachael, this is Jerry Shannon. How are you guys??? I was thinking of you all and googled your name--this is what came up. Very interesting stuff. It would be great to catch up sometime. We're up in Minneapolis now, and also have a Micah in our family now. You can email me (us) at would be good to hear from you all.

Rachael said...

Hi Jerry! Wow, good to hear from you. We've wondered how and where you are, too. I (and/or Scott) will email soon.
Thanks for making contact!

Rachael said...

I know this is very late to the discussion. But because of what Ron said of Melissa's words "a desire for the world to be the way it's supposed to be", I'm thinking of Peter Maurin's (the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement)words: "It is our responsibility to make the world a place where it is easier for people to be good." What an amazing statement. I don't even know what to do with that.