Self, Service, Self, Sacrifice

Dear Carla F,

A miserable and terrifying sacrifice indeed. I’m relieved you’re pondering vocation and courage so lucidly since I’ve been puzzling over these too, fretfully and fruitlessly, in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s death. I want to return to one other big idea, Responsibility, which you brought to the table in your post on “The Art of the Comment” and which turned out, as you predicted, to be such a hard conversation to have that I cravenly turned the page.

Responsibility. It’s one of those words that crops up inevitably in this kind of debate and gets pressed into service by the side with which I’m less sympathetic, though more familiar.

It’s disheartening to watch these conversations proceed online according to their usual tired choreographies: pro-choice people grouping all pro-lifers with Tiller’s murderer and blaming O’Reilly, Jesse Watters and their ilk for “egging on” the lunatic fringe, while pro-lifers defend an indefensible practice of intimidating and attacking a vulnerable part of the population and the people who serve them.

This conversation belongs in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s the formula for absurdity, an efficient and streamlined means of eroding intelligence and sense on both sides.

It’s also a means of eradicating Responsibility from its lexical and conceptual underpinnings. No one pays it much heed except when they mistake it for a mallet and try to club the opposing side on the head.

There’s a moment in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales when someone asks, “How shall the world be served?” The asker is the Monk, who gallivants about the countryside hunting and who holds the Bible “not worth an oistre.”  He finds both work (swynke) and study repugnant, and his answer to this question is to “Let Austyn (Augustine) have his work to him reserved!” while he persists in his capacity as “prikasour,” a hunter.

It’s a hilariously unthinking answer to a thinking person’s question. But it’s a rather popular answer even now, methinks.

How shall the world be served, CF?

Funny. I’ve been thinking about the foolish male-female divide in Star Trek, about how the culture’s demand for female courage might be anemic at best because it doesn’t even have the compensatory payoff (in the face of real danger) of being narratively interesting, and so doesn’t supply the same public accolades which accrue to brave men. I’ve tried mapping this on to some sort of law of supply-and demand. I’ve thought long and a little bitterly about how even my own idealistic attempts to serve the world—my plan to go into medicine, say—were contaminated by those ego-driven rewards. Not money or status, but admiration. A touch of the heroics. A knowledge that you are serving, and the smug self-righteousness that attends that feeling.

I got into a spat with an ex over this. We were once on parallel breakneck paths to med school, but unlike me, he actually went. Years later, while he was doing his residency, he told me he blamed his fellow residents’ girl-and-boyfriends for abandoning them merely because they (the residents) spent little time with them, so busy were they saving lives.

I pointed out that this attitude was hardly endearing. Most people, I said, are in relationships because they’re getting something positive out of it—say, quality time with a loved one. It’s a question of competing claims. For residents, sure, there’s a payoff to putting off yet another dinner/date/trip because a) a patient’s life is in danger, b) you’re fulfilling your professional duties c) you feel good, and d) you’re getting the prestige that comes from a high-status job well done for which everyone will commend you. Also, you get the trump card; you’re saving lives. You can claim the moral high ground anytime you want.

The girl-or-boyfriend has no such incentive and receives no such reward—emerges from the conflict cloaked in frivolity for wanting to go to a movie at all.

He denied that any rewards obtained and claimed that he and his fellows were 100% selfless. The selfishness rested entirely with those who felt that a movie was more important than a life.

Which, you know, tomato, tomahto.

What the above demonstrates is that neither of us was above putting competing interests on a scale and weighing their merits according to our rhetorical agendas. Neither—no matter how valuable our actual work—was willing to see beyond the self.

Just when I’m on the verge of dangerously concluding that there is no such thing as real altruistic service, along comes the devastating news about Dr. Tiller, a man whose entire professional life was lived according to an ethical code that precluded precisely the kinds of accolades that come to the run-of-the-mill medical or law-enforcing hero. That in fact put him at risk even in this, our first-world nation.

What must it be like to feel that kind of vocation? I think I told you I once (very briefly) considered going into a convent. I receive e-mails to this day that make me both grin and sigh for the seriousness and the real purpose I thought inhered in that sort of life. There was a time, I think, when I might have been capable of misery and sacrifice. I feel so crippled now, so weak.

I wonder what your answers to the Sisters of St. Joseph questions would be. Do we decide whether to be Austyn or the Monk?




2 Responses to Self, Service, Self, Sacrifice

  1. Carla Fran says:

    Dear M. ,
    I highly recommend this 1984 essay from the NYT by a doctor who is reading Gaudy Night. How fitting that the conversation can always return to Harriet Vane and Miss De Vine (who can tackle the issue of vocation without flinching):

  2. Millicent says:

    AUGH!!! absolutely amazing. thanks for this, lovelet o’mine. here’s to finding our real jobs.

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