The other day I got a letter from a young friend with lots of questions. He finished college a couple of years ago with an interest in a writing career, but first he wanted to do volunteer service work. So for the past year or so he has been in a raggedy part of Chicago working with children who may never get the kind of life choices he is now trying to make. The gist of what he asked was this: “I’ve told the people here that I want to help others through writing. But to them ‘helping’ means food, clothing and shelter, not ideas, words and literature. I’m thinking maybe they’re right, that I should forego journalism and stay here and help humanity. How do I best do good?”
That’s a question I put to myself once, long ago. It was a frequent theme of beery late-night talks when we’d range from Thoreau to Gandhi to Joan Baez and draw up hypothetical lives filled with good intentions. Premed students would all be jungle doctors; the lawyers would all help the poor. I wanted to write something worthwhile. We would all do good. Years ago.
The last time I remember asking the question, I was a young reporter on a little daily in a part of Wyoming that was being stripmined. Doing good meant writing environmentally sensitive articles and challenging the city fathers who thought apartment complexes and trailer courts in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains were good ideas. I left there shortly after McDonald’s and Kmart arrived. The last thing I heard, the lovely cottonwoods lining Coffeen Avenue had been leveled to turn the street into a four-lane highway, and the ornate courthouse had been obliterated by a modern monolithic county-city building. So much for doing good.
My friend’s letter took me back to those days of hope. All races would work together in building the Great Society. We would save the whales by singing and find God by meditating transcendentally. We had our troops out of Vietnam and Nixon out of the White House. All visions were ascendant; power to the people.
I don’t know what happened; I lost a decade or two somewhere. I get this letter about doing good and all I can think is, “Doing good? Are you kidding? With terrorists loose in the Middle East? With drug gangs taking over our schools? With deviants threatening the American family, and all the illegal aliens getting in? And today’s TV and today’s rock stars and AIDS and the killer bees?”
I have gotten old.
A young friend asks me to explain how I do good in my profession and my first response is something like, “Do good? I don’t have time to do good. My son is sick at school and I have to go get him, but the car is in the shop because the whole exhaust system fell off. And I’m on my bike which has no brakes and we’re house sitting for the neighbors who are now sunning themselves in Florida and I’ve got to go meet the plumber because their hot-water heater burst last night and began flooding the basement and I’m behind deadline on a speech I said I’d write for a friend. I don’t have time right now to think about doing good. There’s too much going on.”
But if I were to tell him, what would I say? That we all have our talents to apply; but that, given the talent, what I’d rather be doing is playing third base for the Boston Red Sox? That partly it’s knowing yourself and that, say, if I were a priest I’d be much happier in the monastery reading, writing and digging in the vineyard than counseling unwed mothers, dishing out food in a soup kitchen or trying to sabotage the factories that make warheads for Trident missiles? Each of us has a calling. Who knows? Maybe I heard wrong.
Anyway, all of us, I guess, could fit our menial chores into some grander scheme of doing good. Maybe the guy who sells vacuum sweepers door-to-door sees his role as helping whole cities get rid of unsightly living room dirt, bacteria and infectious diseases. Maybe the woman who collects tolls on I-80 glows with pride over her contribution to the nation’s transportation system. The loan officer who greeted me last week maintained he loved his job because he likes to help young folks like me stake their claim on the great American dream. That’s not what the jerk said, though, after he’d gone over my books and ushered me out of the door with a condescending pat on the back. All dreams have a bottom line.
I have a “big picture” formula for cosmic altruism, too. It goes something like this: Ideas, facts, feelings and beliefs get turned into words. The words communicate; communication brings understanding; understanding brings harmony, love, peace and all things good… in theory. But mostly I do what I do for the same reasons everyone else does: I enjoy it and someone pays me to do it. And someone takes care of all those things like health insurance and retirement plans and an expense account for a little travel and lots of lunches. Every dreamer has a bottom line.
Do I tell my young friend who wants to change the world with words that I work for money? That a fee is discussed shortly after a freelance job is offered? That sometimes I write ad copy and P.R. stuff and things I really don’t want to, and do it solely for the pay? Everyone has a price.
The rationale, of course, is that if I were single, I would work for nothing; but I have a family to support, obligations to meet. Just last weekend, for example, I bought a new Snapper power mower on credit and somebody’s got to pay the bill.
I remember once, on assignment for an editor, writing a piece about today’s student and those of my generation. Today’s students, I said, are overly career-oriented; they’re geared to striving for that high-paying job and accumulating status symbols. Yesterday, I pointed out, we were into self-fulfillment, not material things. But when the story was accepted and the editor said $50 was all he could pay, I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled. When I objected, he noted the irony of my complaint.
I used to listen for that higher calling, but these days my ears are filled with different sounds. Like rainwater dripping from the ceiling and my kids talking back to me.
When I was younger, I vowed to march to the beat of a different drummer. I remember telling my father, an accountant by trade and temperament, that I would never sit at a desk in an office all day. I remember one night driving through the suburbs with a girl I was dating. With a sweeping gesture toward middle-class America, I said something bold about never wanting to live in a house in a row with other houses. When she defended the practice and said I was naïve, I knew I would never call her again. She obviously could not envision the horizons I could see.
Today my view is from a fourth-floor window where I sit behind a desk all day. And on weekends I live in everyone’s neighborhood in a blue two-story house with a station wagon in the driveway and two kids shooting hoops near the garage. A golden retriever is sprawled out on the patio and I’m behind my new shiny red Snapper cultivating my lawn — a noble country squire jousting feverishly against quack grass and crabgrass, dandelions and Jimson weed.
And when the battle’s over, we all gather over at Bob and Heidi’s, toss some burgers on the Weber grill and pop open some Michelob Light. We put a movie on the VCR for the children and talk about important things — like which family econo-van gets the best mileage, which morning show we watch (“Isn’t Maria Shriver pretty?”… “Shouldn’t Jane Pauley do something with her hair?”), and isn’t it terrible what’s going on now in El Salvador (“It’s just like Vietnam”). And when I ask about doing good, we point to things like “doing our share” to strengthen the social fabric, paying taxes, raising proficient kids, and being one of those law-abiding citizens who helps maintain the status quo.
So here we are, the people we warned our parents about, our lives fully engaged in earnest games of trivial pursuit.
Maybe, not wanting to disappoint the young and idealistic, I should just tell my friend the one thing I thought about when I thought of something really doing good.
There’s a hawk that lives around here, a large red-tailed hawk, I think. I see it soaring over the fields where I run my dog each day; I’ve seen it in the woods by the river, gliding, hovering in the wind. It is a beautiful, majestic bird. Sometimes I wonder what it’s doing hanging around here in the middle of a Midwestern city. Sometimes it flies around the houses, sailing from tree to tree. People walk outside and point and watch. They call others and they stand and look up, almost reverently, till it soars out of sight. That hawk, I think, does good. It is like that message-in-a-bottle dropped from the sky, a magical reminder of the difference between the sacred and profane.
There was a time when the call of potent signs really mattered, when we read Carlos Castenada, Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung. We’d talk about the infinite reaches of the universe, the soul of nature, and life after death. We felt superior to those who measured their lives in coffee spoons — George Babbitt, Willy Loman, even William Randolph Hearst. We’d quote the Little Prince poking fun at adult “matters of consequence,” and smugly echo T.S. Eliot: “We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/ Headpiece filled with straw.”
There was a time when the mundane details of life seemed silly and irrelevant, when asking the eternal questions was the only authentic thing to do. Now it seems the ultimate concerns are distant and irrelevant, and life’s minutiae the most urgent and encompassing occupation of our minds.
Sometimes I wonder where the mystery went. Do we know too much? Have our landscapes all gone flat and shadowless? Or did we stop asking the right questions? Are we jaded, bored and too sophisticated to wonder what we’re doing here? Has the mystery gone the way of peeling paint, used baby beds and the late-night talks when we’d interpret dreams? I can remember getting excited about UFOs and angels, ESP and karma. We’d sit around and tell ghost stories and revel in the unexplained. We’d talk about God and truth and purpose and … how one does good.
These days “daring” is when I climb a ladder to clean the gutters and “exciting” means riding a bicycle without brakes. Last week my wooden fence blew down and it still needs mending. It’s time to patch the roof and get the old storm windows off. I’ve somehow got to get the squirrels out of the attic and this weekend (for sure) all of us to church. Everywhere I look somewhere needs repairing; I look at my body and feel creaky, tired and old. One of my kids is too competitive; the other usually needs a push. Some days it seems that all a person can do is brave the battle, to keep from being swallowed by all this stuff. Forget about looking for the magic. Forget about trying to do good. Let me just turn on the cable sports channel and watch a game before it’s time to go to bed.
Do I say these things to a young aspiring writer? Or do I wait for him to learn them for himself? Do I tell him that sometimes the hard part of growing up is holding onto the ideals and values that were branded into your youth? No. I don’t. I try to find something meaningful and worthwhile to say, even if it means dusting off the hollow spaces that haven’t seen the light of day in years.
Looking again at his letter, I see he asked something about words versus food and clothing, pipe dreams versus basic human needs. So I think back to Dostoevski’s The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor from his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. The setting is Seville in the 16th century during “the most terrible time of the Inquisition.” Christ has returned, “softly, unobserved,” but now He stands before the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor. The Cardinal goes through the Biblical temptations in the wilderness, when Christ refused to turn the stone to bread, to throw himself from a mountaintop and be caught by angels, or to accept the authority of earthly power. The Cardinal then chides Jesus for his pie-in-the-sky vision, and for overestimating humanity by giving us freedom instead of those things which would bring happiness and certain belief.
“Do you know,” asks the Inquisitor, “that ages will pass and mankind will proclaim through the mouths of its representatives of science and wisdom that there is no crime and, consequently, no sin, that there are only hungry people. ‘Feed them, and then ask virtue of them’ — this is what will be written on the banner that they will raise against You and with which your temple will be destroyed.”
The Cardinal continues, sounding a little like a Marxist, criticizing Christ for having offered “fire from heaven” instead of earthly needs. “It will end,” says the Inquisitor, “by their laying their freedom at our feet and saying to us: ‘It doesn’t matter if you enslave us, just give us enough to eat.’ Then he concludes, “You promised them the bread of heaven, but can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, the eternally vicious, and the eternally ignoble race of man?”
Even after I mull this over, I’m still not sure just what it means; but I think it has something to do with what I’ve been thinking and about not living by bread, or possessions, alone. Even those with a full pantry can be undernourished in the essential ways.
Of course, I need to tell my friend that words won’t change the world either, that he’ll have little control over his ideas coming true. Mostly he’ll be happy when his words have been read from beginning to end. Occasionally they may touch someone; rarely will they have any influence, and if they do he’ll probably never know it. That’s usually the way it is with doing good, I think. It is like the hawk whose flight was right and natural, but who was unaware of his gift to those who watched. But all the pieces of the human mosaic somehow fit together — the brilliant and dim, the rough, straight and oddly shaped, the big and not so big. And each one rubs against those they touch, is ascendant or on the ground.
Do I write these things and risk sounding cynical or pretentious? Or just a quick note to thank him for asking the right questions. And for making me think hard about the answers. Then tell him that’s all writers really try to do.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.