Wrestling with Mrs. Jellyby

Having in the last few days written about Dickens and Social Activism through writing–how through volunteering and writing Dickens inspired some of my better spent days–it occurred to me of a problem that Dickens himself spotted in “professional beggars” as one of his late books called charities who sent troves of solicitous male trying to get money. This should not be misunderstood: nine times out of ten when Dickens writes about poverty or charity, Dickens is on the side of giving if you can. Yet he spotted in one character the whiff of hypocrisy. Mrs. Jellyby is a pompous, self-importer do-gooder whose “works” do nobody any good at all. Now, Dickens in fact was for giving charity and doing good for others, in big ways or small. Yet Mrs. Jellyby is not an accident.

Mrs. Jellyby can be likened to the stereotypical social worker, the mean, cynical (forgive the word) bitch who goes forth to do the bidding of the state without really caring if her “good works” benefit her constituency or society. Even I have met a social worker or too whom I thought would be much better off if he or she admitted to that money was what they were after and go into a field like business, where nobody pretends that generosity has anything to do with the work being done. And of course, everyone has also met that lazy, shiftless equivalent in social work who does not do any good works because they manage to find ways out of doing any work at all. I will not point any fingers by describing or giving names that I have met. I am just admitting that it does exist. There are people who go into working for the state the way Donald Trump went into running casinos (or government, frankly). And of course, I admit that there are cases where people “burn out.” People who once meant well are hardened by what is difficult work with people who are poor or sick.

So it is that when a charity is rundown and no longer working or when a state agency no longer does any good, I am all for overhauling it or finding a way to “rewrite the rules” which govern that charity or state agency. I know why liberals are fearful when they hear things like “SRS does nobody any good; if somebody is abusing a kid, the kid is never actually removed” or “Foster care is a mess; the kid is always the last and not the first consideration.” The left, I believe, is afraid that if a bureaucracy is torn down to be replaced, the sneaky person in favor of getting rid of it will not rebuild it with something new. They may feel that a broken system is better than no system at all. And this is sad, because things like SRS and foster care are necessary for society’s most vulnerable citizens (children) and other facilities for the physically or mentally handicapped (and people who are simply poor) are necessary for our having a humane society, too.

Yet when a person thinks of the cynical, crass reputation of social workers in New York or Washington, D.C. , a person has to wonder if any good has been done by them at all. (I admit some bias: most Kansas social workers that I’ve known have done their job, and I have never lived in New York or Washington, D.C. but only heard about them through word of mouth. I also admit that private charities, to my experience, do better work than the public kind–but that they have less money at their disposal and so can help fewer people.)

The point is that in any kind of charitable or public work, a person has to act with love in their heart. If they go to a new client’s house already convents that this person might as well be a convict on death row, then they will not do any good. On the other hand, they should not be naïve: if there are signs of abuse in children or elders, they should not just assume that “everything will be alright” because “things have gotten better since last time” (meaning, I guess, that the bruises have healed). People should use things like therapy as tools, but from my own experience, I have seen people “reform” only to go back to their “old ways” the moment the therapist was out of the room. So I guess what I am saying is that “the Good Society,” should balance love and honesty. The poor should be treated with compassion, but clear expectations must be set down when unhealthy situations arise.

I admit that though I worked as a volunteer at Breakthrough for years, I did in fact “burn out” myself. I do not mean the patients: I still love the members. I mean that I wanted to do something new, to spend more time writing. And this is okay. I put in my years of service working at Breakthrough. In fact, it was a unique opportunity, and even helped me learn things about writing. So if a person as a social worker or charitable worker discovers it is not work they enjoy or are good at, or that over time they are not enthusiastic about it anymore, they should not be ashamed to leave. However, I fully believe that if a person wants to “do good” for other people, and maybe even for God, organizations ranging from Social Work to Catholic Charities to Recycling Centers are a great place to look. And that is the best answer to the problem of Mrs. Jellyby possible.

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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