The Call to Service

John Erskine, author of The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent- WHICH IS ONLINE HERE!!!! YES, I am SHOUTING because this is THRILLING!

Anyway, included in the book with the same title (which we blogged about here) are four other essays, including a commencement address with this title. He says here:

“…that every graduating class expects, to be told what to do with education, now you have it; your school or college owes it to itself, you think, to confess in public the purpose for which it has trained you.”

And that most commencement speakers will oblige by deliverint a speech about service,

“educated men should be unselfish; that learning is a vain and dangerous luxury if it is only for ourselves; that the following of truth, the reverent touching of the hem of her garment, is not, as we may have thought, a privilege, nor is even the love of truth a virtue, until it is converted into a responsibility toward others. “

This is what everybody says. Ths is what everybody knows. This is what everybody expects. But John Erskine says he hestitates to deliver this message.

“What confounds us is the plain fact that only those who hope to render the service have the slightest enthusiasm for it. We might well expect also some due and ardent recognition, some rising to the moment, from those about to be served. Their need, to be sure, has no such focus, no such rallying-point, as the impulse to their rescue; no commencement address puts them in mind to receive, as you graduates are stimulated to give. But their need itself, we might think, should at first prepare in them, and experience year by year confirm, a receptive and a thankful heart. Yet those about to be served are silent. If there are distinctions in silence, theirs leans less toward humility than toward defence. Those who have already been served and who now hear again the summons to their benefit, break silence by gradations of reproach. They deprecate the ministrations of the educated. They invite the physician to heal himself. They intimate hypocrisy in their would-be rescuers, who, they say, instead of equalizing men’s misfortunes once for all, so that no further rescue might be needed, actually prefer to patch up life’s injustices from year to year, finding a moral satisfaction in being charitable, and craving, therefore, a sup-
ply of the unfortunate to exercise that virtue on.”

Ouch. There is something sweetly seductive, isn’t there, about seeing oneself in the capacity of a saviour, a rescuer, a Lady Bountiful (or Sir Bountiful) who is always willing to consider the needs of the great unwashed and serve them well? It’s insidious, like the fumes of the Green Witch in Lewis’ The Silver Chair. What happens when we see ourselves as the noble saviour, out to rescue the great washed, the poor and ignorant, the underprivileged from themselves, their circumstances, and everybody around us, is that we create an unhealthy relationship where our good opinion of ourselves is dependent on the continued existence of those great unwashed, and if they don’t appreciate us as they should, well, then, they are clearly ungrateful wretches, selfish, deeply flawed, and- this may explain why some of those who have the lowest opinions of the people they are supposed to help are in the helping professions. They get tired and burned out, often because their goals are not supported by reality or shared by those they supposedly want to help it, and this burnout can carry with it some level of resentment, even disdain, towards the job. Social workers and teachers suffering burnout report being disgusted and fed up with the people they were supposed to be helping, furious at being called upon to help yet again.

I’ve also seen some adoption and foster care situations blow up in people’s faces, and generally, in those I’ve seen, one of the factors was that the parents went into it with this savior mentality- they were going to be noble and rescue somebody. Nobody likes being somebody else’s project, and seeing other human beings as your project dehumanizes them in your eyes.

We need to watch that. Erskine some helpful questions to ask ourselves before we go off on our errands of mercy. I’lls hare those tomorrow.

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