Sunday, July 26, 2009

There is no "them"

Those of you who have ever been involved in a project involving a small group, or perhaps in a small church, may be familiar with the phenomenon: You start out doing things, and you do some work and help, and then the time comes when you say to yourself, "Okay, that's enough. I've done enough for them. I'm sure they have other people who can do the rest. They can't expect too much from me."

The moment when you grow up in your interaction with that group is the moment when you admit the obvious. There is no them. Or, to put it alternatively, you are them. There is just that group of people. It may be ten, it may be two dozen. But what gets done is what that group of people, including you, does. There isn't some gigantic organization that exists apart from you, to which your contribution is just a drop in the bucket, which will continue getting just as much done without you. This is a small church, a small organization, a volunteer group. If you don't do it, it doesn't get done.

The fiction of "them" is very comforting. And unfortunately, it is fostered by our present societal arrangements in which so many things seem to be done by big groups--be they corporations, charities, churches, or government. Everything is big. And so being a mere fellow traveler and doing only, and only temporarily, the amount that seems reasonable (read "easy") is all too easy. Because after all, they can't expect too much, and they were doing just fine before you came along, and they will do just fine if you leave, or drop your involvement, or whatever. It doesn't really matter.

Now, the truth is, even in big organizations or agencies, everything that gets done for good gets done by human beings. But certainly in for-profit arrangements, or even arrangements where some people are paid, the "them" idea is easy to maintain. What do you mean by "them"? Why, the employees of the corporation, of the charity, or of the government agency. They are official. They get paid to do this stuff. Anything you add is lagniappe, gravy, extra.

But in the pure volunteer organization, this is just false. There is no distinction. In a very small church, there is at most a very small paid staff--perhaps only the priest or pastor. That's it. And it's hard to keep up the lie to oneself that one pastor can do everything that needs to be done. In some groups, there isn't even that. There are just a few people who have stepped forward and been willing to be on the board (for free) or even, in a totally informal fashion, to do most of the work. And that's it. They're happy for your help, but no one should be under any illusions that his work is extraneous. There are so few of us that all of our work is important. If we don't do it, it doesn't get done.

This has all been borne in on me as I have been involved in a signature-gathering campaign in my local area. And it's rather a nuisance to have to come to that grown-up conclusion and to abandon the fiction of "them." But salutary, nonetheless.

On a similar theme, there are some passages in Annie Dillard's rather diffuse but at points very good Holy the Firm:

God...leaves his creation's dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were; God kann nicht anders. This process in time is history; in space, at such shocking random, it is mystery....Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead...But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generation which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day....Who shall ascent into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? "Whom shall I send," heard the first Isaiah, "and who will go for us?" And poor Isaiah, who happened to be standing there--and there was no one else--burst out, "Here am I; send me."

Cross posted at What's Wrong with the World

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