Friday, April 24, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It is often said that we live in a selfish, indolent age. It is, to a certain extent, true, in Britian and the wealthier countries of the world. But the only thing that has really changed is precisely that we are wealthy. People from Mr Ugg the Austropithecine onwards have always preferred lying on whatever was comfortable, scratching their armpits and watching the neighbours shout at each other to thinking, working and helping their fellows. It is the extraordinary increase in wealth of the last decades that have allowed large numbers of people to actively indulge this desire. The great majority of people now either do no work at all, or are paid to do wholly unnecessary things, or things which make no contribution whatsoever to the wealth which we all enjoy the benefits of.

One of the things, the main thing, I wanted to look at when I started this little exercise in talking to myself (and half a dozen others) was the ways in which we are wrong. Belief is much easier than truth, remarkably easy, in fact, and the desire to feel good about oneself is psychologically a very powerful influence on our character and behaviour, including the way we choose beliefs and turn them in our minds into something we call truth.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta was a woman of such supreme goodness, of such extraordinary character, so far beyond what most of us can imagine being, that she was always going to be misunderstood. There are those who have made a nice little living criticising her. This is typical of those so small and mean that they cannot accept or understand the greatness of others, and, ignoring everything else she did, become obsessed with some little detail that can be construed negatively- she asked for money from unfashionable sources, she worked her volunteers very hard, hygiene and treatment were not always of a high standard in her centres- to satisfy their own need to see themselves as better than she was.

There are not a handful of people in this world who have done a hundredth of the good that she did, and she will not easily be forgiven for it. This is not about her, but about how people understand her, but it is worth looking briefly at those criticisms:

She arrived in Calcutta and saw that there was work to do. She was moved by love of her fellow man, a love that oozed from every pore and every fibre, and which she expressed by working twenty hours a day for sixty years, unremittingly, to ease the suffering of the people around her. Not by hectoring others, writing articles in the Guardian or throwing stones on the streets of some european capital, but by getting her hands dirty every hour of every day, and persuading others to do the same. She needed money to do it, and she didn't care where it came from.
The love she felt derived directly from her love of God, another thing some people cannot accept. For these people, nothing she did counts because she did it in the name of God, rather than of social justice, post-colonial reparation, or some such empty label. She loved people, not words, and she did her work because it needed to be done, not to be thought nice, or clever or progressive, or culturally aware. (It still need to be done, by the way. But I don't see Tariq Ali doing it.)

She founded her order because she needed other people to help with and continue her work, and she persuaded volunteers to her centres because there were never enough to do what had to be done, and she made them work hard because that was what they were for. It was not so that gap-year arts students could have a chance to feel good about themselves. Nor did she turn anyone away. She cared for anyone, and most of them literally did not have a place to drop dead. This meant distributing medicines with care, not telling them to come back in January and blaming someone else.

Some criticisms are quite possibly valid, but no one who did not actively try to improve the deficiencies they draw attention to has any moral authority to pontificate.

This piece is actually not about Mother Theresa, but Irena Sendler, who I was reminded of by this article. She also recognised, in the ghetto of Warsaw, that there was work to be done, and she set about doing it. Risking her own life daily, she devoted years, again every hour of every day, to saving the children of Warsaw from death at the hands of the Nazis. She was eventually captured, tortured and sentenced to death, but was rescued and continued her work in hiding in Berlin. After the war she tried to reunite the children with their familes, but most of their parents had been killed. The communists jailed her and stripped her and her family of even those rights which other Poles were officially supposed to possees, but she lived to be honoured by the Pope, the Israeli Government and her native Poland, and by much of the world. I haven't heard her villified yet, but I'm sure it will happen.

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