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November 13, 2009



To which my answer could only be: "Partly because I can't figure out how..."

I think that this is a bigger factor than most people appreciate. For example, my wife and I have cycled through many more charities and charitable activities than we've continued to support, mostly because on closer examination they turned out not to be quite what we were hoping for. Sub-examples: Volunteering for building restoration, to discover oneself renovating a building mostly used by those who are already doing okay, or giving to Heifer International, which can't quite explain how giving a family/community livestock is going to help them escape from the illiterate agrarian pit in which it is mired. There are also those cases where one feels the need to right a wrong but doesn't know what would help: an intervention with a functioning addict, or at the other extreme of in the personal/impersonal perspective, whether to supporting a complicated proposition. It's dispiriting and discouraging to doubt if one is actually doing good. I think we all want to be good but do less good because we're not sure quite how. For many people, I think the solution is to pay 10% to their church and have done with it, confident that their church will find a good use for it. Others want the government to do it*. Many people want the government to legislate so that the law and morality are isomorphic at least partially because that would clarify what's good and what isn't.

Some people have a lot of success by picking a cause with which they feel an affinity and pouring themselves into it. Thus we have crusaders for various diseases, for animal rights, for religions and football teams, and so on. Not all of these are helpful, but I think they're still expressions of people searching for a way to devote themselves to something bigger. To an extent more information just complicates things. My mother in law was pleased as punch to give a goat, but I was deeply uncomfortable, not sure whether I was helping or hurting.

"Wisdom" is such a useful term in contradistinction to "intelligence" for these kinds of matters. Some people are gifted before their times with a way of sorting wheat from chaff (or tares, as the case may be), but I think most of us have to fail a few times before we start to figure things out. When I was a 13 year old boy going through a divorce I wanted to be a physicist but I my coping mechanisms for one destroyed the academic achievement necessary for the other. By the time I was 19 or so, I felt glad that something had dislodged me from my preconceived and impoverished notion of what I should be in the world. Again when I was 21 I discovered I'd made another mistake with my life trajectory, and again at about 26 I became deeply thankful for my prior mistakes. Right now things are going pretty well for me but I'm sure I'll be laid low a few more times. And when I've recovered from that, hopefully I'll be wiser as to what I'd be best to do and I'll be able to direct myself in a better way.

So, life is messy at the moment, and it may be difficult to muster the clarity and resolution to pursue any particular line, but I think such periods are necessary before we can truly grow wise.

*Though of course at least some of this comes from "soak the rich" sentiments. I bracket the idea of entitlement because that is essentially the opposite of charity/altruism.


Also, I think angry polemics aren't good practice, but to some extent exploring them in the context of interlocutors familiar with one's passionate convictions and generally romantic cast of mind is not necessarily a bad thing. I do worry about the same approach if it influences public style. That shuts down communication rather than enlivening it.


Nato is right that for most of us figuring out how to do good is sporadic and confusing. But I don't think that is a bad thing. This is how we learn to love others, discern what needs to be done and remain humble ourselves. I happen to know that you are a good person with a good heart. You're without guile (though often very opinionated!)and you look for opportunities to help people when you can. You're also a person of deep faith. I'd say all this adds up to a good Christian person. For myself, opportunities for service come from two sources--my family and my church. You serve your family because you love them and it is your responsibility, but especially in the contemporary world, I begin to regard parents who do their very best to raise good children, and children who serve their parents when they are old and decrepit, as heros of a sort. These are the unsung decent people who allow any culture to survive. I'm very grateful as well that I find opportunities to serve in my church. And I have realized over the years that it is important in an institution to take some initiative in service. Sometimes you just have to look around you and see what needs to be done and do it. In this spirit, I've adopted some of the older people from our church whose families don't pay much attention to them. I give them rides to the doctor, occasionally do their laundry, take them to lunch for their birthday, etc. These are small things, but often it's the small things that make a difference in life. I also work with a group of kids that meets twice a month to cook, do crafts, go on hikes, etc. I thought at the outset this would drive me crazy, but I really like it. I don't know if the time I spend with them will make any difference in their lives. They all have good parents. But somehow, I think it is a good thing. The more adults these girls have that they know care about them and are rooting for them in life, the better. So--I guess my point is--don't be too hard on yourself. We all eat too much and enjoy chocolate. But beyond this, life and rendering service are part of a process that is guided by your character and faith and desire. I'd say all of these are in the right place in your case. Just work hard to develop that eye for where the needs lie and you will do a world of good in your life.


Holy crap, where did this place come from? I feel like I just hit an intellectual and theological jackpot.

Bookmarked for further reading.

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