Saints, fools, and angels

heart-32834_1280Today, I read about a man in Los Angeles who cares for terminally ill foster children. At a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is everywhere, it is especially beautiful to read about how Mohamed Bzeek’s work was sparked by his wife’s passion and is sustained from his devout Muslim faith.

This week, a friend shared Laura Gilkey’s blog. Laura’s 9-year-old son Benji is dying of leukemia. Laura documents their journey toward Benji’s death: his bravery, his brother’s stalwart companionship, the millions of medical decisions required to give Benji the most comfort and the ability to be his Benji-est each day. I do not know her, but I read her updates daily, in tears and amazement at how this woman is doing the impossible.

But then, that’s the rub. It’s not impossible. It happens every day: children get sick. They die. Our hearts crack with admiration and grief and sympathy. We comment with disbelief:  “I could never do it.” “I couldn’t cope.” “He is truly one of a kind.”

We think this is work for saints or fools or angels. We think it is someone else’s work.

I work at a think tank. We are remote problem solvers. Take, for instance, the project on social mobility I was involved in a few years ago: we wrote about gaps in achievement based on race, based on parents’ income at birth, based on reading and math proficiency in 5th grade. We wrote about the data in hopes that people who make and write laws would read it and believe it and make policy to help close those gaps.

It is, by its very nature, abstract. My role now is even more abstract–as an administrator, I facilitate the conditions and organize the processes for the people who do the research that we try to get staffers to read, in order to inform the drafts of legislation that might get passed, and then could possibly, eventually move the needle on the problem at hand.

Policy work is big picture work, and at its best, it’s justice work: changing systems in hopes of creating a more equitable and peaceful world. But it often feels removed from people and their daily experiences.

The big picture is important. Justice is important. But if we wait for justice before we act–if we imagine that only saints and fools and angels can do hard things in an unjust world–then we are missing out and selling ourselves short.

Justice is not a precondition for doing good. Mohamed Bzeek and Laura Gilkey remind me that goodness and beauty–terrible, awful, transcendent beauty–is the love between people. It is not for later; it is for right now, for right here in this hopelessly unjust world. It is not crystalline and angelic; it is earthy, carnal, corporeal. It is tears and snot and blood and exhaustion. It is tangible, immediate, urgent, gentle, resilient.

It is not someone else’s work.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes:

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.

I hear Mohamed and Laura and Marilynne call to me: open your hands so that precious things may be placed in them. 

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