Wednesday, March 08, 2006

iPods, busywork and some reflections on altruism


I'm giving a midterm tomorrow so I've had some students in to see me. One, an ok and reasonably diligent one, came to my office plugged into her iPod and, after our discussion immediately pulled out the iPod to plug back in. I noted that my #2 son had the same model and we discussed its virtues. She said that she couldn't handle not having her iPod with her anymore--her music, she said, was her stream of consciousness and she felt naked without it. I supposed that I understood that but noted that when I'd tried using headphones it made me feel trapped and angry because I couldn't think about things. She said that she didn't want to think about things when she was out of class and needed her music because it filled her head.

De gustibus. It did seem crazy though. When I go to bed or have to take a long drive I like to have some project hanging or a question I'm interested in unsolved so that I have something to think about, something to entertain me. I can't imagine having this preference to have ones head filled with noise.

One thing I learnt though in my long and futile campaign to get ordained was that people have a variety of preferences, including some that I just couldn't figure. I discovered, for example, that among people who were involved in the Church there were a surprising number who had a taste to "do for" people, as they described it. They weren't Pharisees or hypocrites, they didn't just want to be seen to do good or only to seem to be good: they genuinely wanted to help. But on the other hand, they didn't just want things to be fixed or for people to be better off: they wanted people to be better off through their efforts and wanted to be needed.

And they didn't want to "do for" people because they were involved in the Church or because they thought there'd be any rewards for it in the here or hereafter. If anything, they got involved in the Church because it provided opportunities to "do for" people. In fact the whole operation seemed geared to provide opportunities, most of them bogus, for do-good work. When clergy talked about "empowering the laity" it meant providing busywork for laypeople to make them feel useful. The assumption was that lay people were so incompetent, unconfident and just lacking in the ability to organize any projects that they needed clergy to encourage them, give them direction and help them find projects to make them feel useful. It was infuriating--patronizing. Moreover I had to do all this stuff to build my ordination vita, and pretend I thought it was worthwhile.

The worst of it was the Daughters of the King. They prayed for people. Once a month on Saturday morning we met to to tweek the Prayer List, adding names for Healing and for Strength and Guidance, and dropping people who had either been sufficiently healed, strengthened or guided, or who had had their innings. Being cynical, part of the appeal was the gossip value, particularly for Strength and Guidance: the ladies liked chewing over all the details of people's diseases and personal problems. Still, that wasn't the whole of it: they really thought that they were doing a good job for people by setting up that prayer list and praying for them. What I really couldn't handle was the Prayer Chain. This was a round robin telephone call arrangement that was activated when any of the ladies got news of an urgent need to be prayed for. I would get a call and then have to call the next lady on the chain to pass on the the prayer request. And I prayed that I would get the answering machine. It was all, in a bizarre way, businesslike--launching into action and getting that praying done for the poor jerk whose case had been brought to the attention of the Daughters.

What was queer though, and not only about the Daughters, but about most of the women who were involved in these traditional church-lady activities was that they were more interested in what they thought they were accomplishing than in the intrinsic character of what they were doing. They would do any miserable shitwork if they thought it was going good--as they understood it. They counted the collection money, they organized fund-raisers, they worked in food pantries, they collected rags, junk and garbage for rummage sales, did every sort of miserable, boring, drudgery--and liked it because they thought they were being useful.

I just hated, hated the whole damn thing. I spent years trying to fit into this picture, to be a good person by these standards even though I didn't even believe that this was what being a good person was all about. It wasn't the metaphysical leap of faith I couldn't manage--because if the truth be told, even if I can't really give reasons, I buy the theology. But I do not buy the ethics: I do not believe that this taste for "doing for" people, for being useful, is intrinsically good and I am outraged that the Church not only promotes it, but flatters people for having it and identifies it as virtue.

I suppose in some circumstances cultivating this desire to be useful is a good thing: there is some shitwork that needs to be done. If you can get some people to do it for free and feel good about it that's fine. If you have a large population of women who have no disposable income or salable skills but lots of time on their hands it's worth squeezing all the work you can out of them however time-consuming--their time isn't worth anything and there are no opportunity costs. If an old lady spends 10 hours crocheting a tea cosy to sell at the Crafts Faire for $1.00 that's fine because there's nothing else she could be doing with those 10 hours. 10¢/hour is better than nothing/hour. If the Daughters of the King devote their time to maintaining a prayer list and running a prayer chain there's no loss because they don't have anything else to do that would either improve their lives or anyone else's. You fill your life with noise and busywork because there's nothing else, and something--anything--is better than nothing.

But when there are other possibilities, as there now are for most of us, that's another matter. Undergraduates don't have to fill their heads with noise: there are a billion things to think about and puzzles to solve, and they have the resources to plug into all this. Women don't have to spend their time organizing rummage sales or running prayer chains: there are a billion things they can do that are both more pleasurable and more productive. It isn't that thinking and puzzle solving are in some sense more virtuous or edifying than noise and busy work--they are simply more pleasurable, and usually more productive.

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