Monday, February 25, 2008

Love thy neighbor as long as they're far away

I made an off the cuff response to a statement that liberals love people by saying that liberals loved humankind but not necessarily people. I even quoted one of my favorite philosophers, Linus (from Peanuts) who said, "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." I think I need to do two things with this whole idea -- extend it and expand it. The extension is easy. I don't think that liberals have any more love for humanity than conservatives do, not one whit. I don't think that conservatives love people any more than liberals do, not one whit.

Have you ever noticed, though, how gladly we give money and time to people who live half a world away? Save a child in Nicaragua. Save a mother in Chad. Save a family in Dafur. We do, and we store up blessings in whatever non-denominational heaven we believe in. But, do we go to the other side of town and save a child, or save a mother, or save a family? No, not usually. Probably because it's messy and unsanitary and after all these people may have cooties. Is a sick child in Chicago any less sick than a child in Iraq?

Now, clearly, there are people who do this, who delve into the smoky netherworlds of freeway underpasses and flophouses. God bless 'em, they are stronger, purer, and worthier than I am. Most of us, however, are like the lady in one of Chuck Dickens' novels (Bleak House?), who spends all her time, energy, and brainpower gathering money for an African tribe on the banks of some river or another. People hold her up as a paragon of Christian charity. Meanwhile, she neglects her own children, but we do have to make sacrifices for the greater good dontcha know.

So, and since I'm doing the defining, here it is -- If you send money to help out in Africa, Asia, or on the moon, you love humanity. If you stop to fix a flat for a stranded mom with six kids, you love people. There's nothing wrong with helping humanity, of course. After all, someone has to do it. It just seems a little cold and remote to me. In the movie The April Fools, a woman is preparing to leave her husband. He says, "But what about little Juan? The family breakup will kill him." "Who's he?" she asks. Whereupon the husband whips out a picture of a small child that he's sponsoring in one of those "save the children" campaigns. He has, of course, substituted money for real, loving charity, and as the man said, he has his reward.


bekkieann said...

"Sometimes charity faileth," the title of a memorable Relief Society lesson from my church-going days. But I think the borderline between helping humanity versus helping people is not always clear. It may be more like your mug-to-glass-transition analogy from an earlier post: there's some gray area between the extremes.

For example, take the seasonal "Angel Trees" wherein we provide a fabulous Christmas complete with turkey dinner for a deserving local family. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them just here in Utah. Talk about Dickensian - God bless us every one. But I am always drawn to the mother in the family, the needs she expresses, say for a nice outfit she can wear for a job interview. And I can't help thinking how quickly our generosity to her family dissolves and is likely for naught because we haven't changed anyone's life really unless we can somehow help her to support her family all year long. Sadly, this very people-oriented activity, may be nothing more than altruism in the end.

Where I work we have a blood donor center. Dozens of people come in every day, get stuck with a needle and patiently sit as life-sustaining fluids are drawn from their bodies. Their reward is a glass of juice, a granola bar, and for those who donate platelets, taking nigh on to two hours, a movie on us. A great many of these people return over and over again every few months. Why? They never know the person they help, and so perhaps blood donation falls in the general category of "good for humanity". But in the end, an accident victim, a newborn baby, an organ transplant recipient -- some individual's life is literally saved by this act. It doesn't get more personal than that.

Altruism alone is perhaps not the best measuring stick. Maybe it's the significance of the personal sacrifice involved, and how truly beneficial the gift is to the recipient. And that's neither a conservative nor a liberal thing. But then that's what you just said, I think.

Liz Adair said...

I think one of the blessings of the wonderful media infrastructure we have is that developing/struggling countries have become our neighbors. We are privy to their struggles and needs, and are all too aware that there is no social safety net there. And, it often becomes more of an inertia overcoming process to reach out that far. Dealing with the needy in the flesh is often thrust upon you, something that there is little choice about, but reaching out to someone you don't know, will never see, requires more than simply thinking it would be a nice thing to do and getting warm, fuzzy feelings.
But--I'm with you, that helping in the flesh is much messier. Collossially messier. Gargantuanly messier. Messier to infinity. Makes me tired to think about it.