In Defense of Public Altruism

I remember some years back I read an article in the New Yorker in which the claim was that the efforts to do good in 3rd World Countries, as in the examples of foreign efforts in countries like Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo, does not alleviate suffering but in fact prolongs it. It seemed odd that somebody on the left would be promoting this argument. Firstly (and most obviously) because every person I had ever met who said that “our country should keep its nose out of other countries’ business.” This was, of course, before President George W. Bush. The isolationism of certain sections of the right has always been with us, rearing its ugly head in the 1930’s and then being revived after Vietnam in the form of a certain national defeatism. Secondly, though, it seemed as though it was similar arguments I have also heard of the right at home: that the welfare state as a whole hinders more than helps the recipients of the aid it offers. However much I may disagree with these two sentiments–and I do, immensely–I do have to admit a certain symmetry in them: there is no money to give to poorer or unfortunate people at home or abroad. Except for its cultural issues, this does make a person wonder why the New Yorker is on the left at all. Before I explain why I believe it is also wrong, I am going to outline why I think it thinks like it does.

I had a psychiatrist years ago–not one I liked particularly–who taught the philosophy that before you loved others you had to love yourself. If I understood him, he might ultimately not believe, however, that outside of psychiatry a person who was healthy could actually help a person who was not in any meaningful way. Because of that, his theory went, if a healthy person met an unhealthy person, it was best to avoid them. He told me once about a doctor who he knew who was a case in point. He liked him when they first met because he was all pep and enthusiasm. Yet the second time he met the man, the man barely reached out to him: he was too depressed to reach out of himself. Then my doctor said, “His wife committed suicide. It was really because of him. Avoid people like him, people who have mood swings like that. They can only hurt you.” Not long after I left this doctor for good I was re-diagnosed with Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder. I was like that man, but somehow my doctor never noticed. I wondered at the time how the fool had not noticed my moodiness, as my depressed states were increasingly alternated with “happy” (read: manic) moods.

Well, this fool believed his insights were not just personal but political. He never doubted that the average prison inmate was incurable (“can’t be treated anymore”) or that his grudge against socialized medicine was based purely on what was best for the patients. More, he admitted that he believed racism–including what Serbians and Croats felt for each other in the latter 20th Century–represented a kind of disease which was not really curable either. He said he preferred treating kids, which I suppose was nice–except that he seemed to have an odd prejudice which said that adult mental patients were not really curable, and he certainly never tried to take cases for the state. Intrinsic to “loving yourself first”–as far as I could tell–was that others always came second and that capitalism without the “safety net” was the best economic system because it promoted health. More, just as there were sick and healthy people, there were sick and healthy countries. He told me at one point that the reason Hitler killed the Jews was because the Jews had “rejected Hitler.” Without wanting to know what it meant to him, I will give my response.

Anyway, years later I worked at Breakthrough, a mental health club. All of the members were mentally ill, and though they could not be hired as staff, I always felt as a “high functioning” patient (I even had a college degree) I held a kind of “in-between” position. I therefore worked as somebody who was a tutor and later cook. I don’t want to brag, but I guess I have to in order to prove my work helped the members.

My first patient was a man who was in a car accident, whose head hit the dashboard which caused him amnesia in terms of–among other things–his ability to do basic math and read on a grade school level. The driver in the other car was drunk; he was the designated driver in his car. So it was that I figured out how to teach him multiplication first. The first attempt was not very successful. I would use equations like 3+3+3 = 3×3. Yet he could not do it. Yet then I saw him counting: 3, 6, 9, 12… And I had an epiphany: “Larry, multiplication is counting. I will recite the equations while you recite the answers. Now count by threes: 3×1, 3×2, 3×3, 3×4…” And it worked. Within a few weeks time he learned how to multiply 1-5, and then we used flash cards to get him through 6-9.

After that, I got workbooks by the now defunct Kelley Kincaid (it is a shame; they were very helpful) grade school worksheets for both basic grammar and math. Now, in math he never made it beyond fractions. Yet in grammar, he was eventually able to do something he could not after his accident before we met: he could get through the first book of the Challenger series for GED students without any help (including mine). Over time I read to Larry from different books: Ellie Wiesel’s Night; A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Sheltering the Jews; Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures; Burying the Chains (about the British anti-Slavery campaign); and The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Larry particularly liked “Sherlock” to “while the time away.” The way our work day worked was simple: 10:00 AM-12:00 PM Math; 1:00 PM- 2:30 PM Grammar; 2:30 PM-3:30 PM Reading.

I worked with other students on the side, albeit sometimes only as moral support. I remember one woman who came each day to learn to type using the computer and a textbook the club had. She would eventually become a secretary. There was one woman I explained the Holocaust to, even using a globe to do so, so she could see the difference between where the U.S. and Europe–particularly where Germany (the perpetrators) and Poland (one of the central European countries where most of the camps) were. I also worked on a collage with one student to help her get her high school diploma (it turned out to be a small task; she would have to do many larger tasks with a staff member to do it).

Eventually after Larry was declared “cured” (he moved out of his parents’ house and traveled to the places he wanted to go by bus), I got burnt out on teaching. (I am rather ashamed to say that, but it is true.) However, I did get to do other things with the Clubhouse. For Hanukah parties I fixed latkes and bought jelly donuts. For Pesach (Passover), I would make a seder plate’s materials for whoever came: matzo, horseradish (to go onto the matzo), a sweet dish called charoset (also to go on the matzo), celery, eggs and grape juice. (Each of the Pesach dishes have a symbolic meaning.) One year for Yom Kippur I even made a Honey Cake to go with whip cream and coffee. (It is hard to make a honey cake.) I did all of this to teach about my religion, and when doing so, I included speeches (for Yom Kippur), a Haggadah (for Pesach), and Hebrew music (for Hanukkah one year). Of course, I knew that they were not going to convert (there was only one other Jew) but I thought that since I celebrated the other members’ Christian holidays with them, they could celebrate my Jewish holidays with me–as long as I did not involve them in saying Jewish prayers or learning hard core Jewish theology or law.

I occasionally fixed the members non-religious foods. One thing that did not work out so well was the time I tried to make them Ancient Mexican (Aztec) cocoa. One time that went better–surprisingly–I made butternut squash and chickpea stew. Everyone made that particular vegan stew. And everyone also liked it the two times which for Valentine’s Day I made chocolate cup cakes and then decorated the cupcakes using some help from Williams-Sonoma and a book Hello Cupcake!, the store from which I bought it from which no longer exists.

My theory behind the parties/food is that if you create a happy experience in time for somebody who is sick, then when they are not feeling happy, they can look back in time and say, “That was a wonderful Hanukkah I had. And good times will come again.” I really believe that.

Anyway, the larger point in all of this is that I believe I did good working for Breakthrough. More: I believe most good deeds involve at least two people, the giver and the receiver. Now this being so, the good that either international aid or the welfare state do involves the person working as a aid worker or social worker. It is true that politicians have to work hard to create functioning programs to take care of, say, the mentally ill. Yet the less glamorous work of working with the sick is where a person is helped or failed to be helped. The tragedy that people hear about New York–and I hope it is not true–is that apparently there is this huge, burgeoning bureaucracy that gets so little real done. Either the system itself is rotten to the core, or the people working for it no longer help to ease the suffering of the poor in New York City. I am lucky I worked in Kansas! Though our programs are underfunded, the one thing Breakthrough did supply were large numbers of places within the Breakthrough where I could make myself useful and no pile of files for me to work my way through first. I am sure–despite what the New Yorker says–that this is how it is for societies like Doctors Without Borders (a charity I highly recommend to those with money who want to give). The doctors try to save as many people as they can, but–alas–they cannot know the ultimate fate of each and every patient.

This last, by the way, is like Larry’s fate. I was gone taking classes at W.S.U. one semester after I finished working with him. When I came back, I had died. I felt as though I had abandoned Larry. Yet I really had no choice. Years later one of the staff members gave me a picture of him that Breakthrough had among its’ things. I still have his picture, and a lock that had been the only possession of his that he owned jointly with Breakthrough. This was, alas, an unhappy ending. Yet that is the point. Not every patient saved by Doctors Without Borders is going to be saved in the real way–by not going on to fight whichever side he may have fought on to become injured. Yet can we really accept the conclusion that it is better to look at the dying person we could help, and do nothing? I believe not.

I have read the biography of that Great Lady who makes my own efforts on behalf of the sick seem like a pittance: Something Beautiful for God, about Mother Teresa. I will comment here on the bizarre truth that Mother Teresa has critics. They ask if her work with the lepers cures more than a few. Yet to anyone who ever gave to anyone, that is not the point: the issue is to live with those who suffer, and suffer with them, and to heal them thereby. Many more than were literally cured found comfort and hope in Mother Teresa. Because if she saved only a few from death outright, she was the Good Mother of Calcutta to all of them who came to her. Similarly, organizations like Doctors Without Borders can never really know how much good they are doing. But in doing good for others, even if only in their intentions, they have won those words that I will quote–Jew though I am:

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:

Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (Timothy 4:7-8)

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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