I remember reading a book years ago that I both liked and did not like–and still haven’t finished. It was Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. I liked it that the author, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, was willing to travel all the way to Brazil to find the “inside dope” on what it was like to live in terrible conditions in a 3rd World country. I feel like this subject doesn’t get enough attention in 1st World Countries, and that–to quote Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew about God as King at the End of Times, indicating the good deeds his true followers did to others:
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Yet most of us know, realistically, that the people we have loved tend to be small in number and the pebbles we throw into the cosmic ocean may seem too small to leave any great impress onto the oceans into which we fling them. We give money to charity. Is it enough? We try to be kind to those who suffer. Do we know, however, the people who truly suffer? We find, in fact, that our desire to do “more” is equaled by our lack of fortitude and apparent lack of opportunity. Yet we must not give up. If a person gives $50 to Doctor’s Without Borders or UNICEF each month, it is something. If a person works one night a week at the homeless shelter or at the humane society, it is a gift. The key is to find a way to be useful.
However, I did find a certain distaste in what in Death Without Weeping for what ordinary people are capable of. It was perhaps a misunderstanding–I am especially prone to that when I read–but what she derisively spoke as “Fezziwig” kindness: the idea that by being good an ordinary businessman can affect his workers in a positive way. Of course, when Charles Dickens was writing, the ideas that coalesced into the modern welfare state had not yet been fleshed out. Child labor laws had not been passed–and may well have finally been passed because of writers like Charles Dickens. Of course, when Death Without Weeping was written, it was not yet possible to measure the fruits of capitalism with the fruits of Soviet Communism. I make this stark a contrast because there have been more moderate socialists–or even less moderate ones like Communist George Bernard Shaw–who have embraced Dickens’ vision of a better world. The point is that the Soviet Union, besides having periods of extreme human rights abuse, left Russia with an economy smaller than the nation state of France. In the U.S., by contrast, our chief problems in the short run may not even be financial. Under President Biden the economy is improving, despite the fact it doesn’t feel like it with us all under the weather about COVID-19. We have the greatest upswing in that regard since the Regan years.
There is another point, however, that Death Without Weeping misses. I worked for a while as a kind of social worker at the mental health club, Breakthrough. I believe I did a fair amount of good, but what people forget is that a good or bad social worker can make all the difference in the world to the people they work with. Think of Breakthrough as being like its counterpart in Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities has a pool of what amounts to “better help” than social workers often are. The stereotype of the mean-spirited, money-grubbing social worker who only has their paycheck in mind when they get their job is sometimes all too true. Yet the work they need to do is necessary–helping the mentally and physically disabled live up to capacity; and helping the able-bodied poor achieve active education and employment.
The way I always imagine social workers helping the people in the Bronx in New York or Washington, D.C. is for the social worker to begin their acquaintance, “I want to find ways to help you. I want to know, firstly, if you have any children, and if there is a way to keep them in school. I also want to know how much you know about nutrition and cleanliness. This sounds odd, but I have met people in your situation who could use the education.” The key to doing this would be to do it without implying any guilt on their part or censure on yours. People ask, “Well surely a person could figure out that type of thing on their own.” This is not so. What most of us forget is how much of our education is learned in the home in early childhood. And helping those who don’t have much to live for is what Jesus call helping “the least of my brothers,” and the Jews are likewise commanded, “Feed the Jewish and the gentile poor alike.”
The point is that the good boss, the kind school teacher, the compassionate doctor and equally compassionate faith leader–society needs all these things. Moreover, though average workers need to be hard workers, they also need to be real friends. A friend is somebody who looks out for a person. If that person is sick or unhappy, the friend reaches out to try to find out what is wrong. To quote Jesus again–and I hope my fellow Jews don’t find this annoying, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The rabbis also say, “Friendship or Death!” This is because they knew that the cold life of somebody who is empty of bravery and compassion for others is not worth living. The point also is individuals need to be kind, not just the intentions of legislatures have to be just.
That is why when a person sees a crime committed, they should call the police. When they see a fire, they should call the fire department. These may seem like small things, but if each of us holds it close to our hearts that “we are our brother’s keeper,” it will be easier for the big jobs society needs to be done get done, too.
So although I need to finish Death Without Weeping and feel grateful to the author from what I did read of the book, I had to write my own “Defense of Fezziwig.”