Some brave souls dare to care in a cynical age

ALICE STEINBACH

December 27, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Always, as one year is closing behind us and another opening before us, we feel the need to go in search of a few good men and women. Which is why every year at this time we read in the papers and see on television so many stories of exceptional people who devote their lives to doing good: feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, giving hope to the hopeless.

It reassures us to know that such people exist -- people who ask not what the world can do for them but what they can do for the world. And they inspire us. At least temporarily. We see how they live their lives, and we promise ourselves: This year I will give back more to the world than I did last year.

Of course, such good people exist all year 'round. But our attention and appreciation of them do not. Nor do our promises to recut the pattern of our lives into a more altruistic shape.

It has been said that idealism is easy to idealize. And we are warned to temper our admiration of selfless people with a -- of skepticism.

But it has also been said that any improvement of the world will only come through the acts of individuals making altruistic decisions about how to live life.

We sometimes forget this: that life is something that happens to individuals, not to "people."

Inundated as we are by polls and studies on what "people" think and feel, we tend to lose sight of the individual in the forest of demographic statistics that purport to reflect "life." But percentages can never take into account what psychiatrist Robert Coles calls "the mystery of the individual."

Perhaps it is the mystery of the individual that accounts for the goodness we see, for example, in those dedicated relief workers who for years, not days, have tried to feed the starving in Somalia.

On a recent television newscast, I watched as one such worker -a young American woman from Phoenix, Ariz. -- gently stroked the brittle-boned body of a dying Somali child. Perhaps, I thought, if life is merciful this child will die while looking into such a caring face, die comforted by the light that shines out of that face.

Thinking this, I wondered: Why are some people capable of such goodness? And why, in a time when many of us avoid life's cruel realities by escaping into cynical detachment, do they choose to embrace the Buddha's last words to his followers: "Make of yourself a light."

Still, there is clear evidence that many individuals from widely diverse backgrounds are seeking to find some larger principle to guide their lives. One senses also a growing need, particularly in young adults, for "community" -- which is to say, a desire to belong to something that reflects one's individuality but also adds to it the larger good.

In a soon-to-be published book titled "A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation," its author, religion professor Wade Clark Roof, writes: "Baby boomers are likely to say they are on a spiritual quest in search of faith. Their journeys often seem more important that their destinations. . . . Most boomers believe that religion is a spiritual quest, not a social obligation to churches and synagogues."

Ours has not been a time in which community has thrived. It has been, instead, a fertile ground for the growth of narcissism -- a condition described by social historian Christopher Lasch as "a feeling of inauthenticity and inner emptiness."

That such feelings abound in our society is evidenced by the intense interest in any theory or therapy that suggests an antidote to the problem. And there is no lack of authors and counselors out there who would like to act -- some in self-interest and some not -- as spiritual guides.

But how are we to learn? Ours is a society that goes into a tailspin over the suggestion that students might devote just a few hours a year to community service. Too much paperwork, we say. Too much time taken away from "real" education. Too unproductive since students don't want to do "mandatory volunteerism."

Such an approach, of course, fails to recognize the meaning of the word "service." It also ignores the idea that the value of community service lies not in what the students might give but in what they might learn.

I think again of the face of the young social worker in Somalia. No evidence of any feelings of inauthenticity and inner emptiness there. Only the inner illumination that comes from making of yourself a light.

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