It was September, 1998, in Bloomington, Indiana. As part of the conference on "Spirituality & Ecology: No Separation," a group of concerned citizens was gathered in the basement of St. Paul Catholic Center. They were thinking and talking about living their ideals. Some had planted trees in Africa. Some described ways that they honor the indigenous spirit of a place, and their own ancestors. Elderly nuns and young feminists recounted their partin women's struggle. One frustrated woman voiced the nagging worry of many."I want to do something, but what can I do? I'm just one person, an averageperson. I can't have an impact. I live with the despair of my ownpowerlessness. I can't bring myself to do anything. The world is so screwedup, and I have so little power. I feel so paralyzed."
I practically exploded.
Years before I had been stricken by a debilitating illness. Perilymphfistula's symptoms are like those of multiple sclerosis. On some days I wasfunctional. On others, and I could never predict when these days wouldstrike, I was literally, not metaphorically, paralyzed. I couldn't leave thehouse; I could barely stand up. I had moved to Bloomington for grad school.I knew no one in town. I couldn't get healthcare because I hadn't enoughmoney, and the Social Security administration, against the advice of its ownphysician and vocational advisors, denied my claim.
That's why I imitated Mount Vesuvius when the conference participantclaimed that just one person, one average person, can't do anythingsignificant to make the world a better place; that the only logical optionwas passivity, surrender, and despair.
I raised my hand and spoke. "I have an illness that causes intermittentbouts of paralysis," I explained. "And that paralysis has taught mesomething. It has taught me that my protestations of my own powerlessnessare bogus. Yes, some days I can't move or see. But you know what? Some daysI can move. Some days I can see. And the difference between being able towalk across the room and not being able to walk across the room is epic.
"I commute to campus by foot along a railroad track. In spring, I comeacross turtles who have gotten stuck. The track is littered with thehollowing shells of turtles that couldn't escape the rails. So, I bend over,and I pick up the still living trapped turtles that I do find. I carry themto a wooded area and let them go. For those turtles, that much power that Ihave is enough.
"I'm just like those turtles. When I have been sick and housebound fordays, I wish someone-anyone-would talk to me. To hear a human voice say myname; to be touched: that would mean the world to me.
"One day an attack hit me while I was walking home from campus. It was asnowy day. There was snow on the ground, and more snow was falling from thesky. I struggled with each step; wobbled and wove across the road. I musthave looked like a drunk. One of my neighbors, whom I had never met, stoppedand asked if I were okay. He drove me home.
"He didn't hand me the thousands of dollars I needed for surgery. He didn't take me in and empty my puke bucket. He just gave me one ride, one day. I am still grateful to him and touched by his gesture.
"I'd lived in the neighborhood for years, and so far he has been the only one to stop. The problem is not that we have so little power. The problem is that we don't use the power that we have."
Why do we deny that power? Why do we not honor what we can do?
Part of the reason is that "virtue" is often defined as the ultimatecommodity, something exclusive, like a Porsche or a perfect figure, thatonly the rich and famous have access to. "Virtue" is defined as so outsideof normal human experience or ability that you'd think, if you were doing itright, you'd know, because camera crews and an awards committee would appearon your lawn.
Thus the defining of virtue is surrendered to a Madison Avenue mentality. I remember when the Dalai Lama came to Bloomington in 1999. The words "virtue" and "celebrity" were confused until they became synonymous. The Dalai Lama's visit was the most glamorous event Bloomington had seen in years. Suddenly even our barbershop scuttlebutt featured more movie stars than an article from People magazine. "Did you see Steven Segal on Kirkwood Avenue? Richard Gere gets in tomorrow." Virtue becomes something farther and farther out of the reach of the common person.
I was once a Peace Corps Volunteer. I also volunteered for the Sisters of Charity, the order begun by Mother Teresa. When people learn of thesethings, they sometimes act impressed. I am understood to be a virtuousperson.
I did go far away, and I did wear a foreign costume. But I don't know that I was virtuous. I tried to be, but I was an immature, inadequately trainedgirl in foreign countries with obscenely unjust regimes and little to noavenues for progress. My impact was limited.
To put myself through college, I worked as a nurse's aid. I earned minimum wage. I wore a pink polyester uniform and I dealt with the elderly and the dying, ignored people who went years without seeing a loved one, who diedalone. When I speak of this job, I never impress anyone. I am not understoodto be a virtuous person. Rather, I am understood to be working class.
I loved this difficult, low-paid work not out of any masochistic sense of personal elevation through suffering. I loved it because I physically andemotionally touched people everyday, all day long; I made them comfortable;I made them laugh; I challenged them; they rose to meet the challenges. Inreturn, patients shared with me the most precious commodity in the universe:their humanity.
This essay is not a protest against selfishness, which, well done, can be a beautiful thing. There is nothing I envy, and appreciate, so much as a lifeled with genuinely unconscious, uncomplicated self-absorption. It's a sortof karmic performance art. Isn't that quality why some people so loveobserving cats? And I do not begrudge my fellow travelers' enthusiasm forglamour; there's nothing I like more. The right dress worn by the rightstarlet on Oscar night probably does as much to feed the soul as a perfecthaiku.
Rather, I'm protesting the fallacy that to be virtuous, one must be on TV, one must be off to a meeting on how to be a better person or one must havejust come from a meeting on how to be a better person, but one can pass upevery opportunity to actually be a better person.