Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Ordinary Virtue: It's Not That We Have So Little Power. It's That We Don't Use the Power We Have

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Ordinary Virtue: It's Not That We Have So Little Power. It's That We Don't Use the Power We Have

Article excerpt

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 1998 IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. 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 they honor the indigenous spirit of a place and their own ancestors. 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 average person. I can't have an impact. I live with the despair of my own powerlessness. I can't bring myself to do anything. The world is so screwed up, and I have so little power, I feel so paralyzed."

I practically exploded.

Years before I had been stricken by a debilitating illness. Perilymph fistula's symptoms are like those of multiple sclerosis. On some days I was functional. On others, and I could never predict when these days would strike, I was literally, not metaphorically, paralyzed. I couldn't leave the house; I could barely stand up. I had moved to Bloomington for grad school. I knew no one in town. I couldn't get health care because I hadn't enough money, and the Social Security Administration, against the advice of its own physician and vocational advisers, denied my claim.

That's why I imitated Mount Vesuvius when the participant claimed that just one person, one average person, can't do anything significant to make the world a better place, that the only logical option was passivity, surrender, and despair.

I raised my hand and spoke. "I have an illness that causes intermittent bouts of paralysis," I explained. "And that paralysis has taught me something. It has taught me that my protestations of my own powerlessness are bogus. Yes, some days I can't move or see. But you know what? Some days I can move. Some days I can see. And the difference between being able to walk 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 come across turtles who have gotten stuck. The track is littered with the hollowing 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 them to a wooded area and let them go. For those turtles, that much power that I have is enough.

"I'm just like those turtles. When I have been sick and housebound for days, I wish someone--anyone--would talk to me. To hear a human voice say my name, 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 a snowy day. I struggled with each step, wobbled and wove across the road I must have looked like a drunk. One of my neighbors, whom I had never met, stopped and asked if I was 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 something exclusive, like a Porsche or a perfect figure, that only the rich and famous have access to. "Virtue" is defined as so outside of normal human experience or ability that you'd think, if you were doing it right, you'd know, because camera crews and an awards committee would appear on your lawn.

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 these things, they sometimes act impressed. I am understood to be a virtuous person.

I did go far away, and I did wear a foreign costume. …

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