Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Long Loneliness (210-235)

This section is given the title "Community."

I feel a resistance in myself when Day speaks of the poor. Resistance to what? I'm not sure. Often, if I parse her sentence, I find I agree with the meaning, for example when she writes:

"As Peter saw it, to live according to Gospel simplicity meant that you begged when you were in need and by this you gave the opportunity to the rich to become poor for Christ's sake. 'Appeals, not demands,' was another of his slogans."

The slogan resonates, and I have a hard time atriculating anything conceptually wrong with the passage (other than, perhaps, I'm suspicious of any understanding of "Gospel" anything that can be reduced to a slogan or focuses exclusively on our material goods). I do know that while reading it (and this section) I find myself mildly bored and vaguely irritated. Is this my conscience being pricked (and me not liking it)? Is it my sniffing a problem (but not putting my finger on it)?

Day speaks of advocating detachment from unecessary luxuries (cigarettes, beer, cosmetics, television, movies, radio) and using the savings to buy a farm. In this, she doesn't sound that much different from an investment columnist for Motley Fool who speaks of tracking your entertainment budget to increase savings. But she recognizes that there will always be illnesses, emergencies, things that may impoverish those who have not necessarily been profligate.

Maybe I just grate my teeth at the ease with which an "unecessary luxury" is defined. (Are there "necessary luxuries," I wonder?) I had a student once who was working on a speech that argued that Christians should not go to the movies, and one of her arguments was to point to all that could be done with the money Christians spent on movies if it were given to missions. Nice thought. Of course, she was on the basketball team, and I asked her how much money she had spent in her life on athletic shoes, equipment, tickets to games, seminars, etc. There really is a tyranny of the utilitarian argument.

Day's not naive, though. She recognizes many of the problems and possible contradictions in the actions she chronicles (her's and others'). One should embrace voluntary poverty...but a man is someone who should provide for his family. One should give profligately...but one should also save frugally.

Over all my reading, I suppose, is an enculturated attitude towards "the poor." I remember coming out of a theater many years ago after having seen Hoop Dreams and being behind two late middle-aged women and hearing one tsk-tsk that they couldn't pay their electric bill but "they all had televisions and $300 sneakers." I hoped I would never become so...(what was the word I thought, or did I even finish the thought?)...out of touch?...snobbish?...racist?....selfish? Since then I've learned that as one moves slowly up the food chain, calls for voluntary poverty can be received in a different spirit than when one has, relatively speak, generally less than one's neighbor.

Day does not romanticize the life of service or voluntary marginalization, and I appreciate that fact. She speaks of it as being hard and, at times, disappointing. Like others, though, she speaks of its rewarding aspects. Yet she often speaks of the hardships with more skill, detail, and pathos than she does of the rewards. I wonder if this is a function of a life of trying to get the blinded to see and feel the suffering around them and of less contemplation on the joys (whatever they may be).

Take, for instance, the passage where Day relates of a a farming commune in Northern Minnesota: "It was a grim experience, though all seem now to look back on their days there with nosalgia" (232). Here she speaks of her friend's philosophy of work: "But because of the Fall the curse is laid on us of having to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows, in labor. St. Paul said that since the Fall nature itself travaileth and groaneth. So man has to contend with fallen nature in the beasts and in the earth as well as in himself. But when he overcomes the obstacles, he attains again to the joy of creativity. Word is not then all pain and drudgery" (227).

In both of the passages cited above, the drudgery, the pain, the grimness of the experience seem so much more palpable and real than the abstract nostalgia and the joy of creativity. I'll be the first to admit that I have a gloomy disposition, so perhaps these phrases are just on a frequency I am more attuned to hearing. I was thinking, though, that I was reading Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking in another context, and she does an excellent job of conveying the satisfactions or joys that can come with hard, painful, sacrificial giving as well as chronocling just how bad those less fortunate than her readers have it.

Or so it seems to me. There is, of course, always the possibility that I resist out of my own continued selfishness to distance myself from the poor and the call to love them.

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