For the last 3 years, and for avowedly the next four months (and preferably no more), I’ve tended the mad, the sick, the dying, and detritus of modern civilization.
And really, I fucking love this work.
Previously, I spent sweating evenings in cramped kitchens cooking over-priced foods to overwrought fools for embarrassingly little pay while the proprietors of the establishments which employed me micro-managed each asparagus spear while snorting the powdered revenue directly from the register. I was always pissed but never surprised when a check didn’t clear, when I learned an immigrant dishwasher was getting less than minimum wage, when I or a co-worker became injured and found our otherwise miserly bosses suddenly able to hire a labor lawyer.
Not that non-profits are always going to be better with worker-rights, but I must say it’s fascinating how less difficult it is working for and with people who want to lessen misery rather than just make money. Social service agencies are a kind of modern-day mendicant order, helping the poor and needy for little to no financial or societal recompense.
It’s been variously argued that the desire to do such work (I’ve cleaned feces off the face of a man with huntington’s and end-stage liver failure, picked chronic inebriates out of puddles of their own vomit and urine and tucked them into bed while they’re screaming foul profanities at me) stems from either fear of God, self-interest or the hope of a reward to come. Multiple people make fantastic names for themselves speculating on the “true” motives (be they financially corrupt or genetically self-interested) of various “saints;” too often some of these named men target specifically religiously-motivated good-workers, seemingly to correct what they perceive as thousands of years of foolish reverence for martyrs, while holding much less contempt for our new aristocracy’s avowedly self-interested philanthropy.
I’ve no intentions of defending anyone’s choice to touch untouchables, because it won’t do any good. There’s something you figure out really quickly while doing this sort of work: no one else understands. Some try valiantly, others sort of nod their heads, some honestly admit its strangeness, and a few virulently attack both those who do the work and the victims we try to help. In fact, in order to secure funding for the folks I work with, strange, convoluted appeals to self-interest have become the new norm. The specific place I work at has been shown to save millions of dollars by some university study; that same study is now touted as a reason it shouldn’t be shut down or de-funded.
As one of the leaders of the union at my workplace, I’m involved in many conversations regarding securing sustained funding for the people I take care of. The liberal consensus (with all its appeals to general decency) is weakening in favor of more utilitarian arguments concerning the commonwealth or civility or public order. I suspect much of this has been spurred on by the increasing pressure of this uniquely american sentiment of libertarianism (I’ve never been able to quite explain it to my german or french friends), this ideal of a government that exists only to police and punish violations of sacred capitalist principles (private property, consumer-identity, trade).
I don’t feel fully comfortable with these appeals to fiscal responsibility, anymore than I’m comfortable merely saying that “it’s the right thing to do.” And it’s a fascinating problem, suggestive of a coming struggle to define what it means to have a “common good.” I find it useful to remind myself that, because of my work, fewer corpses of chronically inebriate natives are stumbled over by yoga-stretched women before their morning soy latte. I find this useful, because it indicates a problem suggested alternately by many leftist philosophers–humanitarian efforts often help oil the grinding wheel of capitalism by tending its wounded victims, just as medieval mendicant orders patched up and healed the victims of the crusades and violent lords.
Much of this is to assert that, if anything, I’m probably too-aware of the societal, political, moral, psychological, religious, and economic explanations, justifications, causes, consequences and insulting evaluations of such work.
And I don’t care. It’s okay for myself, and for many, many people I know, to look at suffering and say “oh, I’m gonna try to fix this.” I’ve heard enough of the arguments against helping the people I help to know that there’s something persistently odious about the existence of the poor, the drug-addicted, and the mentally-ill. They seem to have become the excrement of society, the excrement of many societal orders. Particularly in america, there are multiple, otherwise oppositional ideologies arguing simultaneously that the poor deserve their situations and should not be helped; but even more interesting to me are the efforts to impugn the motives of anyone who’d choose to get so close to this excrement.
Some of us are trying to correct a wrong. Some are trying to fix their karma, or do penance, or feel better about themselves. Some just fell into this work and found they liked it better than other work. Some just do it, and don’t care about justifications.
I’d argue that justifications aren’t necessary. I’m often an unashamed relativist–a religiously devout person who sees horror and tries to undo it is the same in my eyes as a gods-less naturalist who hates to see suffering. We’ve hit the center that couldn’t hold in Yeat’s poem, an uneasy truce with a thousand ideologies competing for the sacred absolute, a new and yet very old struggle to define truth. As terrifying as it can be, it thrills me, because both the old and the new seem to be rushing together, the old gods and the new (un)gods facing off upon a scarred but surviving earth.
For me, it’s not hard to understand why I wipe shit off of a homeless guy’s face.
Because there was shit on his face.