Monday, 23 June 2014

Heroically Cleaning Toilets

I should totally be a hero. I don't know if I've got the reaction speeds and durability to be a protagonist hero, but I could be one of those secondary characters that give the emotional and moral force to a story - like the old mentors that die in the first act, but without any beard. I would be that one dignified lone person who quietly but steadily leads the crowd in refusing to do what the antagonist wants.

I can imagine the moment of my fearless stand, making eye contact with all the people I'm going to inspire and spur to greatness, triumphantly demonstrating that while evil thinks it has won, there are still good people around to be reckoned with. I'm ready to take a place with the gutsy good guys who challenge death for the sake of righteousness. If called upon suddenly, I would stand up. I would be that awesome old man in Avengers who tells off Loki or the convict in Dark Knight who throws the detonator off the ferry.

Somewhere, I've got a flair for the dramatic, but it's mostly poetic. I hate any form of drama in actual daily life. Plus it's not like I'm facing a torrent of major ethical crises at the moment, so that also works against my being a hero. There was that one time I pointed out to my university prof that he had mistakenly given me too many marks on my midterm. That was a morally momentous enough of  an occasion to outweigh all the times I've neglected to clean the bathroom in favour of browsing Facebook, right?

I've just finished reading a work called Strange Virtues by Bernard Adeney. It was recommended to me by an incredibly enthusiastic classmate who said it was the best book ever on crosscultural ethics. It very well could be; I was fascinated by it. But I was also overwhelmed. To be honest, I don't know if I can navigate the world of crosscultural ethics when plain Canadian ethics confuse me quite enough.

Adeney relates in his final chapter an account of an unarmed female missionary friend in Africa who literally ran up to a rape in progress and screamed angrily at the man to stop, all the while knowing that the man was a member of the secret police who regularly tortured people behind her house.

As a general rule, I am also an unarmed female. I am not in Africa, and I don't, as a general rule, scream angrily at dangerous men who torture people, but in a situation as ethically unambiguous as violent rape? Of course I'd intervene. We watch movies and imagine ourselves to be the superheroes; we're the ones who would have stood up; the ones who wouldn't have been taken in. I'm ready for it!

But I still don't know what I would have done if, while working at the Distress Centre, a caller had asked me for a phone number to an abortion clinic. Institutionally, I would have been obligated to give it to her. Socially, it was expected. To not do so would have been considered inappropriately judgemental and unprofessional. And in practical terms, a caller would be perfectly able to get the number without talking to me, anyway. I could have perhaps compromised by handing off the phone for someone else to deal with such a caller, but that would have been pure self-righteous legalism. Probably the only right thing to do would have been to deny her the number despite knowing that she'd get it anyway and that I'd likely be asked not to return to the DC. But is such a poor result worth such a sacrifice?

I told my cousin Aimee about my fear of this situation before I went for my first shift. I admitted that if it happened, I thought my response would probably be to just start crying. When I returned home afterwards, Aimee inquired as to how it had gone.

"Well, I didn't cry," I said. Thankfully, the situation never quite came up and so tragedy was avoided. One time my supervisor instructed me to repeatedly ask a frantic pregnant woman if she needed to go to the "hospital". For some reason, I didn't realize what I was actually offering her until the call was over. The woman, at least at that point in time, turned the option down. Perhaps God knew that I wasn't ready to consciously face a decision like that. Perhaps in this case, my ignorance was a merciful gift.

So you see, I have a problem. The problem is that I wax noble and philosophical, but mostly I just sit on my parents' couch and read books and write blog posts about it.

Luckily, Calvin and Hobbes can weigh in here with a word of wisdom. Calvin learned from his dad how to build character:
I'm not sure that's quite how it works, but there may be some truth to it. If we live our whole lives passionately pursuing happiness, then what makes us think we'll have the guts to voluntarily suffer when asked? A speaker at school said that he had been zealous to do grand and sacrificial things for God in the missionary field. He said the dialogue on the topic went something like this:

Him: God, I'm willing to die for you!
God: Really? That's cool. Thanks. But what I want is for you to go clean toilets all day at this summer camp.
Him: What?
God: Are you willing to do that for me?

He cleaned the toilets.

I'm due to head to China to teach English for a month come Wednesday. Partly I'm super excited, and partly I'm terrified that I am not going to do a God-glorifying job. I am concerned that I will come back and be disappointed that I didn't have the courage or the discipline to do better. Yet, at this point, there's only so much that I'm capable of.

Adeney remarks of his friend who jumped into the rape situation that, "There was nothing she could do, but she did it anyway." There's something oddly comforting in that notion, and compelling.

Thank God for working through us and for going before us. May he work through me, despite me, and teach me to do all the things that I don't believe I can do. In the meantime, if I really wish to be of noble service, perhaps instead of imagining grand heroics I ought to clean a few toilets.

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” Samwise Gamgee (J. R. R. Tolkien)


Anonymous said...

Love this, Carla: "May he work through me, despite me, and teach me to do all the things that I don't believe I can do." Praying this is what you're experiencing right this very minute in China. Love you!

brianna said...

I read this from Uncle Kel's tablet because he had it open! Very interesting... I'm grateful you never were demanded the number for an abortion clinic. Look forward to hearing more about China. :) Bri