Monday, December 24, 2012
Christmas: How to meet the "real needs" of others?
After I “retired” at the end of 2001 (from my 31-year “professional” IT career) I started getting a lot of entreaties and pressure from people regarding what should be expected from someone like me. Specifically, a lot of parties tried to recruit me, if I would only give up my self-created, low cost soap box. The tone of these approaches resembled the pressure that I used to get as a boy and a teen, to “conform” to the shared goals of others, and not get noticed too much for being different, particularly when I did not quite measure up as a fighting man or contingent guerilla fighter.
The estate left after my mother’s passing at 97 at the end of 2010 would seem to leave me (now 69) in reasonably good shape. There are many ways for me to get into trouble, and I can come back to that. But I do wonder about questions now: why am I so insistent on being “noticed” now for my content (as I discussed here Oct. 17), and not doing more directly (and “personally”) for others?
There are specifics that can be said. The “house” (“Drohega” from “The Thorn Birds”) could shelter an entire family with children. I could give more “time” to people with specific needs. I won’t go on with the obvious examples (starting with Sandy, Newtown, cancer, veterans, hospices, underpaid caregivers, Alzheimer’s, even HIV, etc). Indeed, we hear about this every January with the upcoming “national day of service” on MLK weekend. But I think that, for me, for service to really do other people good, it has to be related to the substance of my own life, with what I can personally accomplish. What I find that hit-or-miss volunteering with organization, while it may add to standby social capital, doesn’t do that much for those who need it. Sometimes I’ve found that organizations want me to cowtow to their own personal ego struggles, and sometimes they have clients who have much less legitimate need than others. This kind of experience did work out for me in the 1980s with AIDS, because relatively speaking I had a lot to add then with the clinical aspect. This has become much less so since then. I’m not the sort of person who likes to ask other people for money for causes. I don’t “convert” people to religious or any other set of beliefs. And I don’t think I can accomplish much by picking up a hammer and driving a few hundred miles (see comment on the TV blog, reaction to both me and Anderson Cooper with respect to Katrina, Aug. 29, 2007).
For the effectiveness to come from me, I really have to get my own projects done (up to some semipro level where others can really work with them). I would expect all of this to relate to music, media, or even chess, but I would have to be good at these to function as a role model. (“Winning” a rated chess game again -- even with the “two bishops” -- recently helps.) So it’s not easy to break away, and get involved in a lot of very short term efforts or solicitations that really don’t go anywhere.
The nature of the approaches that have come my way since “retirement” is quite remarkable. Some are quite personal and seem to invite me to become involved in situations in which I would have previously been unwelcome. Some of this came up unexpectedly during the substitute teaching. A lot of it concerns “OPC”, that is, “other people’s children”. Some of it considers openness to sharing emotions with people who cannot comprehend what is really happening except in a very “momentary” way. Compassion and love are really not the same things for me.
All of this loops back to an essential problem for those of us who grow up “different”. We want to accomplish our own agendas and be noticed for them, regardless of the “real needs of other people” immediately around us. Of course, no content distribution can be “productive” until real human beings benefit from it. Modern society and globalization technology gives those who are “different” more leverage because of the potentials of asymmetry (again, the idea of world where bishops are better than knights). This may all seem to come from the Internet, but it was actually starting to happen as I grew up in the Fifties. Music was always a way to do this. In the nineteenth Century, Beethoven really practiced asymmetry! In fact, I often see classical music as a predictor of the course and effect of future innovation.
The moral hazard is that the “outlier” will take advantage of the previous sacrifices of others, and produce unusual economic, cultural, and psychological imbalances. A major example, of course, is provided by the way society has tended to react to male homosexuality, even when private – seeing it as a major psychological (and possibly judgmental) distraction to “normal” people from sexual and emotional “complementary” l commitment necessary to form and raise families – a view that, when looked at closely – seems nebulous and irrational now in an era that emphasizes individualism. But, yup, it was really about having kids and maintaining lineage. I can, of course say, that as the “outlier” ready to “step on your toes” I’m “keeping you honest”. Oh, I’d really like to get interviewed on AC360!
The moral responsibility of the person who is different – and of those around him – is for me “the central issue”. It’s the moral dimension that interest me. I resist trying to evade it with appeals to immutability, which (even when scientifically supported now) seem like cop-outs and which don’t work consistently when applied in different areas.
I come back, then , to the question, “What do you want from me?” That was a painful question during the last years of taking care of Mother, but it was also a painful question early in my life, particularly the college years (and earlier in middle school). Some of it seems to be, you wanted me to “pay my dues” and go through the same rites of passage and tests as everybody else. That was rather a lot of the mentality of the male-only military draft during my own youth. You wanted me to take my turns with accepting the risk of manhood, to protect others, from enemies if necessary (which sounds suddenly like NRA mentality today). You wanted me to have the skills it took to not only take care of myself and hold down a job (and that I did) but also to look after others, with some degree of complementarity. And with some degree of real emotion and faith in shared purpose, which is dicier. I can speculate, of course, that the feeling and emotion would come with the prerequisite skills and capability. That would normally lead to the interest (even necessity) of raising a family of my own. (We can have a layered discussion of how that ought to work in a modern world that accepts same-sex marriage, but in practice that came too late for me, that was not a valid path in my generation). When one starts a family, one has a personal and generative, not just "professional" stake in the future after he or she is gone -- and accepts the idea of not wholly predictable differential sacrifice. One puts his own skin in the game -- as long as one still has it.
As I’ve noted before, I made a kind of truce with all this, pretty much operating as a “team of one”. That was possible throughout most of my adult life (more than it could have been before the 60s), but the capacity of “another me” (sci-fi movies, please) to do so in the next generation could be compromised by sustainability concerns and by a resurgent emphasis on the “common good”. The recent NRA flap is indeed an iceberg; we can have the same discussions about the Internet. I cannot dismiss Wayne LaPierre so easily.
During the recent (until the end of 2010) period of eldercare, I sometimes found myself pressured to behave in a more proactive and assertive manner with respect to other provider in taking care of Mother. This would have been much easier to deal with, emotionally, we I in a home I had bought and developed myself and in a “marital” relationship preferably with sequel. Looking back farther into my own past, it seems to me that this might have been possible if I really believed others would or “had to” do the same. This was a very disconcerting train of thought to follow.
I get the idea that it is important and vital to find emotional value on providing for others, even for some people who are not always intact. I’ve said that my concern with the “affiliation value” of the other person goes down when what I give comes from my own set of expressive skills – but we can’t always count on that “luxury” in a sustainable world where we have to be prepared to live together, not always on our own terms of choice. Generally, in a “democratic” society, we’re supposed to learn this value of constructive attachment through “family first”. That means loving people in your orbit because they’re family, even flesh and blood, not because you are personally dazzled by them.
That observation, however, takes us back to the “recruiting” problem. If my emotional and expressive life is to be subdued by the real needs of others, there is a real risk that it will be wrongfully exploited, for morally illegitimate ends. I don’t like the idea of being on the “wrong team”.
Indeed, it seems that in general the New Testament somewhat plays down the idea of family for its own sake, and places a lot of value on reaching out to people around, “neighbors”, unconditionally and uncritically. We can see this in stories like “The Rich Young Ruler” (with its scoffing at pandering to upward affiliation, and its natural extension to looking at the differences between motherly, fatherly, familial and neighborly love – as in a 1972 sermon given by Reverend Sanks at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC). Jesus seems to accept essential inequality, of capability, as inevitable. There will always be “the poor” and there will always be those less capable than others. This is not just about the modern embracement of diversity and different ability. Salvation is for all. Other stories contribute to the mix, like the Prodigal Son, and particularly the workers in the vineyard. And, indeed, the religious model for natural marital procreation does not always work perfectly that way in the Bible, considering how Jesus himself was to be conceived. Joseph did not choose to be a father just through the usual consummation of marriage vows.
I think that the capacity to bond to others with due respect for just plain need is a survival skill. For I am presently left in the uncomfortable position of “watching my back” (maybe to the cackles on both the far Left and Right). There are a lot of ways to “lose”. It can come from criminal or indignant acts by others. It can come from the neglect of Congress, some of whose more radical (“Tea Party”) members would rather see the country go down into chaos to prove an ideological point (the scary criticism made of my book – as I noted yesterday). It could from gross disasters, either terrorism or nature. Now, cataclysm is less likely here than in many other areas of the country, but I can’t be complacent. The biggest dangers do come from climate change (meaning bigger and unprecedented storms like wildfires, derechoes and tornadoes, even in areas too high for flooding), and unprecedented solar storms. In the past, the dangers could come from fuel shortage and peak oil, but very recent changes in the domestic energy picture (Pickens) can change that. For me, the scariest threat of all probably has to do with the vulnerability of the power grid. I woudn’t have much to offer a world with no power for a year. You get where this is headed.
Likewise, in the demographic area, I see there is much more that can be done to prolong the lives of the elderly, and that can be done for those with many other medical issues, but only if others will personally bond with them. This was not an idea that was apparent (given older medical technology) when I was growing up. So it is hard to see, at age 69, another act for me after this one if some sort of calamity, whether medical (the usual) or external (like crime, war or disaster) occurs. When something “bad” happens, there is no way to make it “all right” after the fact. My own personal impression of Salvation in my own case is to start over, probably in simple poverty, on another world, because I will have come to nothing on this world. Salvation for grace? How can that work if I can no longer do anything?
So, that’s why, at a certain element level, it’s important to become a capable social being when you’re young. I really didn’t. Afterwards, there is only truce, détente, accommodation, assimilation, or grace. But it is no longer “about you”. "Personal responsibility", the way we have talked about it as political libertarians, has become an inadequate concept.
I’ve always believed in the idea of “Karma” – that one can “keep score” on someone, as to whether he or she “paid the dues” and really earned his recognition without undue dependence on others. I think a lot of people, particularly in socially conservative cultures, believe that – but they do see family as a way of regulating the individual in his journey through moral challenges, as if on a board game. Yet, it seems that the Gospels tend to dispel even the idea of “karma” in the sense of it being a school grade that a person gets on this life or some sort of moral score that well-orders him in a rank compared to others.