C. Wright Mills (one of my favorite sociologists, whose work helped me to decide to study power relations and who died young, I like to think, of a combination of frustration and too much alcohol attempting to deal with that frustration) said the study of sociology resides at that nexis where biology meets history and that each of us arrives at conception at that nexis, unable throughout the rest of our whole lives to avoid its effects.
Being born (as I was) in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky situated me geographically and culturally in an area known for its poverty-stricken population BUT to a family that had been filthy rich and locally quite powerful one hundred years before. My father received a bachelor's degree on the G.I. Bill a few years after my birth and my mother had a year of college herself, not to mention being raised by her own mother who was in her youth a school teacher. And they moved away from the mountains soon after my father completed his education.
While our first home had no indoor bathroom until my father put a toilet in a closet, by the time I was in high school, we were living, despite having become a family of seven, in a middle class fashion. Our neighbors were clearly much wealthier than we were, making me feel much of the time slightly embarrassed, like a poor relation, but I rode around with my friends in their cars and enjoyed the generalized privileges of a middle class White girl in northern Illinois.
Now, it's true that I was taught that women are for sex and cooking and I didn't go to college until I was almost forty years old, but when I got ready to go, my middle class up-bringing and "better" high school education gave me a leg up into the non-traditional degree program designed precisely for people just like me. And here I am a couple of decades later, living, if not comfortably or with much "security" by many middle class people's standards, at least adequately most of the time.
I wear "better" clothes from consignment shops and department stores. I drive a ten-year-old car with a fading paint job and a dented rear end, but it's a brand built to last, gets pretty good gas mileage, and manages to look more or less sporty on a good day. I had health insurance for the past year and will have it again in two weeks. I've needed some dental work done for quite some time, but I own two pair of expensive prescription glasses. I can afford to send $150 to Haiti once a month to feed street kids without putting my Christmas vacation plans on hold. And I could choose to spend twenty bucks last night to watch some of my students play football and still go out for a sandwich at a popular yuppy joint afterward, even though it meant running home to balance my checkbook, making a mental note not to pay a small bill until I get paid again.
Well, sometimes I feel as if I make the wrong choices. I chose not to lock into the "right" kind of relationship that would have made it possible for me to send my kids to private schools while I did "volunteer" work or went to law school. I still choose not to prioritize "having" stuff over learning stuff (in a range of ways). And I choose to spend my time trying to make the world better by challenging the way things are, from the outside, not the inside, because I've seen first hand how seductive -- and how distracting -- good cologne and silk pajamas can be, at least for me.
It seemed to me early on, I think, even though I didn't consciously recognize the decision, that it just doesn't work to attack the monster while riding on its back. So I didn't ride. But I sometimes lusted after the trappings or the apparent comfort level of those who did, though I was always, always deeply conflicted about doing so.
I wanted the niceties, but I saw so much suffering. "You can get this," the monster would coo in a velvety voice. "You owe it to yourself." And sometimes I succumbed. And the next thing you know, I'd have done or collected or "enjoyed" one more little perk of the privileged, my soul compromised a little further, my feelings of empathy for those who suffer just the tiniest bit more numb.
Many of those I met and spent time with chastised me for my hanging back from "living life to its fullest" by getting the "gusto" that, after all, everybody wants. My reticence to participate, my discussion of why I don't participate, my description of the effects of our participation in such lifestyles on those who cannot participate irritated those around me and dampened the "fun" of others.
"Lighten up!" I would be told and sometimes I'd try, biting my tongue, eating the food, trying not to remember--just for a few hours--but whether I call it "sociology" or "social activism" or "guilt" or "oppression psychosis" (what Lyford Edwards called it in The Natural History of Revolution), I would eventually rain on my own (and everybody else's parade). No wonder folks take me in short doses. I never let it go. I never give it a rest.
Then, this week, several things came together in a way that reinforced my questions and highlighted my dilemma, if indeed, that's what it is. First of all, a friend sent me one of the most remarkable stories I've ever read and I've been reading it. It's Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. If I thought I was fixated on oppression, Paul Farmer makes me look like a piker. Besides being a book so well written and interesting, the story alone would make it worth reading. Being exposed to Farmer has amped my flame up even higher or maybe what I really mean is "deeper" because it doesn't have me wanting to run around doing more activities. It has me going deep inside myself, examining what is there, that I might play my role more fully and with less ambivilence.
Farmer is ruthless in his constant attack on the system that feeds the haves not only their own share, but the share of the have-nots, as well. A tenured professor in the Harvard med school and a world renowned scientist, Farmer has almost single-handedly sometimes taken on problems that were supposedly unsolveable and virtually by bull will when nothing else would work, solved them -- in South Africa, in Russia, in Peru, and most particularly in the mountains of Haiti. He doesn't just treat starving, poverty-stricken people with AIDS, wildly resistant strains of tuberculosis, and other diseases we never hear about, let alone get, but he does it at least partly by treating sick systems full of individuals who don't understand, don't want to listen, and don't care. And over his shoulder, while never missing a beat, he continually describes and points out how these systems create the diseases, poverty, hunger and pain of his patients while insulating the haves from their inposition.
And one of Farmer's principles, now espoused by his main organization, Partners in Health, is "All suffering isn't equal."
Reading this book this week was having a profound effect on me anyway, but then I visited Professor Zero who routed me to profbwoman over at Oh No a WoC PhD and what with being well into the book on Farmer at the same time, I was overwhelmed with hardcore, thought-provoking new consciousness. Oh, dear. Life was difficult enough before, I mumbled to no one in particular. How was this going to work?
According to Kidder's truly beautifully written account, Farmer, who himself has a whole string of books out and has put almost every bit of money he has ever made for his whole adulthood into helping someone somewhere, once taught a course at Harvard called "Varieties of Human Suffering." "Impolite terms, used intramurally [in Farmer's organization]," writes Kidder, "were meant as philosophical rebukes to the misplaced preoccupations of those who believed in 'identity politics,' in the idea that all members of an oppressed minority were equally oppressed, which all too conveniently obscured the fact that there were real differences in the 'shaftedness,' also sometimes called the 'degrees of hose-edness,' that people of the same race or gender suffered. 'All suffering isn't equal' was an article of the [Partners in Health] faith, generated in reaction to the many times when they had tried to raise money and instead had been offered lectures about the universality of suffering, or simply lines like 'The rich have problems, too.'"
I felt as if I was getting the same message from all sides. And that typically means, I have come to believe, that this is exactly what is happening and further, what is supposed to be happening. So, I listen. Even when, as in this case, I think it's something I already know and -- for the most part -- try to live by.
I haven't got the lesson all sorted out yet. But I invite you to join me in this exploration, if you have the nerve. Go read profbwoman's post. And if you're really serious, get Kidder's book and read that, too. The illusion that as long as some of us are eating, it's gonna be all right is dangerous. A couple of hundred years ago, a writer with a sharp wit once wrote satirically that the rich would probably suggest that we ought to eat the poor. Actually, if we don't get a new attitude, we may, in the end, find the poor eating us, sharing their diseases because we wouldn't share our food and our good fortune. And even here in the good old U.S.A., other repercussions of our own poor decision-making as individuals and as a society appear to some of us to be much more dire and much closer than many might imagine.
I have few current heroes. Dr. Paul Farmer is now one of them. His story and his work prove that a person who looks like me, who grew up with enough to eat, and who got an education, all factors that turn so many of us into self-centered, self-serving iconoclasts, can see the truth and spread the truth and live by the truth. And the truth shall set you free.
NOTE: On May 28, 2008, Amy Goodman interviewed Dr. Paul Farmer on Democracy Now. Through the wonders of modern technology, I am able to add the interview nine months after I wrote this post.