Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brother's Keeper: In Defense of Caring.

Rarely does Facebook's format serve the interests of human discourse. Facebook is for letting the world know what you ate for breakfast, keeping in touch with old friends, sharing thought-provoking articles (where something resembling discourse can happen), and--primarily--for "saying the good things that men need to hear." Encouragement. Camaraderie.

Once in a while, a question appears in a status that demands more respect than the FB can give. For example, here is a good question, although it was probably intended rhetorically. It appeared in the status of a friend (what does it mean?):

Here it is, paraphrased:

"Why do people care? So what if your next door neighbor takes birth control ...? Who cares if the guy down the street holds the hand of another man when they take their morning stroll? Who cares if some woman has sex with multiple men? How do their choices affect you?"

It's a good question and a common question. I'm going to take a blind shot and assume that it's a common reaction to traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. Why do I care whether the gay couple down the street just adopted two children? Why do I refuse to call a legal partnership "marriage"? Why can't I just do my thing in my house and leave the rest of the world alone? I assume that I should also refrain from teaching my children to believe what I believe--because then they, too, would care about other people's private lives.

It's a good question--don't dismiss it! The answer you give could destroy or cement your dearest friendships and family relationships.

Given the recent, state-sponsored, all-out attack on the religious freedom of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and some Protestant groups, my first reaction was, "I don't care. But if I leave y'all alone, will you just the heck leave the Church's schools and hospitals alone?" I know the answer: no. We won't be left alone, because what we believe is offensive and freakish--and we believe that we should care.

But that was a bad answer to an honest question.

Here is the good answer.

First, let's define what we mean by "care." "Care" is not "morbid curiosity." My friend is absolutely right: It is twisted for anyone to investigate and watch (MTV?) what goes on in someone else bedroom. I can mask the ugliest, nosiest prying under the veneer of "Christian charity" (you know, you want to know so you can pray for her!). But just "wanting to know so I can be entertained by my own disgust" is ugly and wrong. And, no, in that sense we should not care.

I also do not care in the sense that I want to impose my convictions on the minds of my fellow citizens. Because, you see, dear friend, the heart of my conviction is a free and total submission to the Triune God. The very idea that "caring" for another human being involves imposition of certain behaviors, or even judgement of the state of another's soul, is nonsensical to the Catholic heart. The Church never "cares" by imposing. In that sense, you are alone. Only you can impose the form of the Cross on your heart.

But there's something equally perverse in saying, "Just leave me alone, I'll leave you alone, and we'll all do whatever the F*** we want as long as we don't hurt anybody (or don't get caught hurting anyone)."

That is because no man is an island.

I will always "care" in the sense that I will forever propose to every man I meet that vision of a life lived in conformity to the Cross and in hope of the resurrection. That is the sense of caring that the Church demands of her children:

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were... any man's death diminishes me." ~John Donne

Human beings are weak, dependent creatures. We need to care and be cared for by other human beings. Every human act--hidden or plain--affects the happiness of every other human being. (In fact, is that not why the idea that someone is "imposing" her morality on her neighbor so repelling? We know that to judge someone else is not to care, but to kill.)

Ignoring each other, not caring, this is inhuman.

We hear in Schindler's List that, "If you save one man, you save the whole world (the original is in the much more poetic Talmud)."

A human being should care what his neighbor does, because his neighbor is as himself. I am man. She is man. He is man. The whole of what is good and worthy and beautiful lives or dies in the life of a single human being.

Now, I know very well that this view carries no resonance with most of the world I live in. If there is no heaven, if God has no mercy, if there is no hope of happiness in this world, if Christ did not come... then no one should care. In fact, no one will care about the woman down the street who takes birth control and sells Marie Osmond. No one will care to ask her over for lunch. No one will care to bring her a meal when she's sick. No one cares after she dies (except for the annoying sense of grief that afflicts the living--the dead don't care, anyway).

But if God did make us, he made us to be together. In this month's Touchstone, Anthony Esolen provides a much more profound defense of caring. Read the whole thing, but here's the heart:

'In other words, the good of a man is the good of man, and the good of man is the good of a man;and both find their fulfillment in God. This is not an equation to be solved, but a mystery of love to be lived. The man who understands it does not say, “My good is in its essence inferior to the good of a million others taken together,” nor, “My good is my own, and I will pursue it, and let the other millions pursue theirs.” Human society is a whole, says Maritain, made up of wholes, and the wholes are persons, meant for the joy of love. That means that we can never purchase our good at the price of another person; his good is mine.

But we may, for the good of others, engage in heroic acts of love: “And when the person sacrifices to the common good of the city that which is dearest to it, suffers torture and gives its life for the city, in these very acts because it wills what is good and acts in accordance with justice, it still loves its own soul, in accordance with the order of charity, more than the city and the common good of the city,” just as the hermit, who, “seeming to forget the city,” contemplates beauty and truth, and in so doing, “still serves the common good of the city and in an eminent fashion.”

How does my neighbor's sexual behavior affect my life, today, right now? I don't suppose "breaking my heart" counts. The truth is, I don't think we can claim to know how any one, isolated human act affects the lives of human beings--now, in the past, or in the future. We're too small.

But we can know THAT every action affects every human being who ever existed or will exist. I know that what Margaret Sanger--even though she never imagined that I, Erika, would exist--believed 100 years ago changed forever the world in which I live every day. I know what St. Peter did on Good Friday before dawn changed forever how I can hope in mercy--even though he lived worlds and ages away. I know that what the Russian Tsar did to a little village in Lithuania in 1904 frightened my grandparents into leaving, and that means that I exist (thank you, Russian Tsar?). I know that because my parents cared about what I chose to do with my body, I became a woman who could marry Todd and have three beautiful girls. We cannot know that immense good, or evil, our choices bring to other human beings.

But we know with certainty: No man in an island.


Faith E. Hough said...

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee...
Beautifully considered and written post, Erika. You've put into words what I so often feel. Thank you!

Rick Wheeler said...

Very interesting blog, I like the focus. Since you mentioned Palestrina I would also recommend Victoria, his student.