Friday, August 13, 2010

Virtuous only by virtue of penance…

A few weeks ago during Confession, the priest recommended that I begin doing some volunteer service at the St. Coletta's development center (the Chinese name is 立達啟能訓練中心) near the bishop's curia. Love, not guilt, is the antidote for sin. So the next day or so I had a friend who works in the curia introduce me to the coordinator and we agreed I could start my service after the summer break ended in early August. She called me this week and said I could come in Friday morning, so I did. I left about an hour ago after joining the students and staff for lunch. Since I expressed interest in the leather craft class, they assigned me to help those students. My main tasks today were helping a new student learn how to hammer the hole punch bit in a straight line along a training board with holes in it, and then helping another longtime student vacuum the floor in the conference room. There was an interlude of KTV after leatherwork and then class wrapped up with the students trying to memorize and dial their phone numbers.

I did a fair share of volunteer service in high school and college, but that dropped off precipitously in Taiwan. For a while, it really bothered me, but I gradually realized that the social structure of Taiwan made it harder for me to see obvious areas of "volunteer need." By this I mean that, since everything in Taiwan is still heavily centered on the family, it's simply rarer to find "free floating" people in need. Their families either handle it or, if it's beyond their capacity, they engage the government for help. There's less middle ground for social altruism, in my experience. The problem is that people who get cut off from their family base, for whatever reasons, flounder perhaps even worse than such cases in the USA, since, again, there is virtually no 'mid-space' social help they can seek. At least homeless people in the USA, for example, know there are numerous shelters to be sought. Here the pickings are slimmer. In any event, the students at St. Coletta's range from the ages of 13–40 (or so). They are not, as far as I have gathered, orphans: their families bring them to St. Coletta's.

Helping the young lady hammer her semi-straight lines of holes in leather had me wondering, "What 'good' am I doing here? And how 'good' am I, really, for being here?" After all, even if she becomes an adept leather-hammerer, her options in life are confined to low-level sanitary work and she will also certainly never date, marry, or have children. So what "social benefit" am I providing really? Add to this the fact that I'm only at St. Coletta's because a priest commissioned me to go there as an act of penance and moral sustenance. I've been intrigued for years about helping at St. Coletta's, or some place like it, but Taiwan is a very "high-context culture," which, I've found, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, means if you gotta ask you ain't never gonna know. It is assumed that those who want to help, know how to do so, and that those who don't know how to do so, don't want to help, so why bother them? In any case, the whole experience had me wondering what is the secular benefit of such volunteer work? In Darwinian logic am I helping the families of the students remain stable and thus pass on more of their genes? Or am I, by my submission to ecclesiastical counsel, reinforcing the social order in a general way and thus protecting the basis for the propagation of the species? Or am I enhancing my social value––in my own eyes as well as in the eyes of my cohort–– by appearing to be a "good person" and thereby enhancing my chances for genetic transmission?

Or am I merely following the law of love like a somewhat decent Christian sheep should do?

I'm inclined to believe the latter, and I will keep volunteering once a week at St. Coletta's as long as I am able. My mom is an occupational therapist of many, many years, so I have had a number of opportunities to engage and help with her students, most of whom are profoundly retarded. For some, indeed, the "peak" of their education is that after years of training they can get more spoonfuls of food into their mouths than not, or they can finally walk form the bus to their classroom without a break or any major support from others. What possible good could such "bottom feeders" have in purely Darwinian terms? Conversely, what possible good can pure Darwinism have in human existence if it can't account for the ineffable goodness of such "little ones"? I am hardly trying to criticize Darwin himself, since I believe he was a sensible enough Victorian, and a tender enough vestigial-Christian, to grant the 'intrinsic value' of such persons as human persons. Rather, I am criticizing the idea that such dignity follows from Darwinism as a scientific theory. Ergo, if we foster the dignity that such "little ones" already possess, it doesn't come from scientific Darwinism, and certainly not from social Darwinism, which once more shows that a truly humane society is never a "purely scientific" society.


Crude said...

Well, the "scientific" Darwinism you describe is "scientific" only insofar as some people love to call it that. Rather like how fascism and communism were called scientific approaches to human history and well-being, despite being anything but. At its best and most scientific, Darwinism is a model and little more. Useful in some applications, wildly inappropriate in others - trying to measure the value of what you're doing by reference to it is like trying to measure the value of charity by consulting traffic-flow charts for the neighborhood. "Helping a person learn some self-subsistence isn't going to solve the problems at busy intersections!"

That said, I've been thinking about doing some volunteer work. I also somehow wish such was assigned to me as penance once in memory - "three our fathers, three hail maries" seemed like the standard around here.

mightygreekwritingmachine said...

I've been reading Thomas Merton's NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, and he speaks about this very same issue of volunteering or giving to lessen one's own self. The idea that sacrifice is the only way to appreciate love of self and that, in turn, filters to others in the way God wants love to appear. Good intentions are useless without true devotion and a sense of the divine supporting them. The vanity is only enhanced when people run around telling about theirs or someone else's good intentions. Science is full of good intentions.