Tikkun Olam and the Kindness Boomerang

4 Av 5774

I sign a lot of online petitions. I’m a slacktivist – I sign, I repost the link to my Facebook, and I do what I can to make my voice heard. I draw the line at “let us know you called” petitions because I can’t hear on the phone very well, so I avoid the phone generally. For a while, I blogged politically for the things I thought were important: marriage equality, anti-poverty programs, education funding, a few other things.

The problem with signing these petitions is that it gets you onto email distribution lists. And then you get emails. Lots and lots of emails.

Right now, almost every email I get from a political organization is asking me for money to help with some issue or other. And how I wish I could, but it’s money I don’t have right now. It’s summer, work is over for most teachers, and I’m living carefully until school starts again and I have some assurance that my classes will remain populated for me so that I’ll get paid for them. It’s a shaky life at best.

But the issues – man, the issues! There are more than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are important, and all of them are interlinked, and how will we ever find our way out of this morass?

Just off the top of my head, here’s a few of the issues that these groups are emailing me about:

  • Gaza and Israel
  • The refugee children coming up here from war-torn Central America
  • General funding for different progressive candidates’ midterm races
  • The GOP lawsuit against the President
  • Comcast’s attempt to kill net neutrality
  • Attacks on servicemembers’ rights to their own religious practices in the military
  • Constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Supreme Court decisions that gave personhood to corporations
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Marriage equality fights across the nation
  • Veterans’ health and disability funding
  • Unemployment funding renewal
  • The adjunct crisis and funding for higher education
  • Protecting James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times who is refusing to reveal a confidential source and is now facing prison time, in blatant violation of the freedom of the press
  • Fracking in California, where I live
  • The drought in California, where I live

And on and on and on. It’s overwhelming. There’s just too many issues and I can’t process, let alone handle, all of them. And this is just a sampling – it’s certainly not every issue that has hit my inbox in the last 72 hours.

There are times I get really discouraged about this stuff. There are times I think that as a human being – never mind as a Jew-ish person, just as a human being – it’s my responsibility to fix it all. Tikkun olam, you know? Heal the world? But how can I do that with only 16 usable hours in a day? I do need to sleep, you know.

When I get into this kind of I-must-fix-the-whole-world despondency, it helps me to remember a passage from one of my favorite books on medicine: Psychward, by Stephen B. Seager. Seager is a white, middle-class, originally-from-suburban-Utah physician who spent nine years as an ER doctor and is now entering psychiatry due to PTSD from having worked in the ER too long. The book is about his first year as a psychiatric intern in The Bin (Los Angeles County General Hospital), which is located in the heart of the ghetto. Seager gets education on more than just psychiatric terms and medications; he gets an education on what it’s like to be blindingly poor. He has to interact with the homeless and turn them away from the hospital on a daily basis during triage because they don’t have mental illnesses. He sees grinding poverty and the anguish that goes with it.

And at some point, it overwhelms him.  On the day he finally reaches his breaking point, he sees a five-year-old who found his parents’ cocaine stash and tried a few lines, resulting in a cocaine overdose. He has to help other people who have problems bigger than he can handle. The last straw comes when has to deal with a woman who is both a cocaine addict and who admits to having sold her children to the “baby man” in exchange for cocaine. He can’t handle it. He leaves in the middle of his shift and goes home to his suburban middle-class house in a nice part of Los Angeles. The next morning, over breakfast, he tells his wife he can’t handle the job any more. The issues are just too big.

On her suggestion, he goes back to tell everyone that he’s leaving, to apologize for leaving in the middle of his shift, and to pick up his stuff. And it turns out that his wife called in one of his friends who works on the ward to cover for him, and told the people at work that there was an emergency at home. Him leaving call blows over, and that same friend, a brilliant doctor named Glen Charles who grew up in and still lives in the ghetto, takes him to lunch.

This is where Dr. Seager gets a lesson in how much (and how little) we can actually do about the big problems. I’ll quote from the book here.

“Everything comes to a head,” [Glen] continued, “when we realize the ghetto exists not because ‘they’ tolerate it but because we ourselves tolerate it, you and I. This place is like it is because we allow it to be so. That’s the conflict,” Glen said. “The kernel for the explosion. How can this place be, and why did I permit it? That’s a heavy cross to bear.”

I felt like running from the room or punching Glen. He’d found a sore spot and was leaning down hard. I think I actually pulled at my shirt collar.

“There is a way out, however,” Glen said with a reassuring look. “Since you were part of the problem, you have to become part of the solution. Not the entire solution, just your part.”

“What’s my part, Glen?” I said, thinking back to the overwhelming rush of emotion I’d felt while driving through the ghetto streets.

“Your part,” Glen continued, “is to take it one person at a time. To realize that all these people are human beings […] That they didn’t ask for this, just as you didn’t ask for the troubles in your life. Do the best you can for each patient that crosses your path and you’ve done your job. The larger issues here are too much to comprehend. But the little ones we can handle. And if enough little ones go away, one day so will the big ones.”

Seager, Stephen B. 1991. Psychward. New York: Berkeley Books.

The value of tikkun olam often feels to me (and, I’m sure, to other Jews and Jew-ish people) like we have to fix everything, right now, all at once. I know that when I point out to my students that there is no one right answer, and that there is no one quick fix – that higher taxes are linked to how we get people out of poverty, and that poverty is linked to a lack of education, and that education isn’t as much of a help as it used to be because we’ve culturally devalued knowledge and value ignorance, and that that ignorance leads to discrimination against people who are different (non-Christian, nonwhite, female, poor, queer), they get really uncomfortable. They ask me “Then what’s the answer?”

The answer is exactly what Glen Charles said it is. Take it one person at a time. Handle the issue you can handle, today, now. Make the world a slightly better place where you are, and let the rest go, because we are human, not superhuman. Reach out in kindness to the stranger. If you can help someone today, help them. If you can say a kind word, say it.

Research has shown that acting kindly towards others makes you feel better about yourself. But it’s also shown that it acts as the start of a kindness boomerang for most people who witness or experience someone else’s act of kindness. A perfect example is this video from Live Vest Inside:

As a Jew-ish person, my job is to be a light to the world, to be an example. So today I’m going to make a point of thanking people for their help. I’m going to make a point of helping people who need it if I can provide the help. I’m going to try to set off kindness boomerangs everywhere I go.

If you do the same, we can make the world a better place, one person at a time.


1 Comment

Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

One response to “Tikkun Olam and the Kindness Boomerang

  1. OldCutterJohn

    I’m fortunate in that a couple of years ago God told me not to mess with anything but what She assigns me. That’s obviously not true of everyone, and not just because they haven’t heard God’s message.

    I sign petitions too. Relatively few, but enough to wind up on all the mailing lists. Of the issues you enumerated, I’ve signed a petition asking that James Risen not be prosecuted. The others will take care of themselves. I pay minimum annual membership dues to two organizations: the Drug Policy Alliance and the Mohonk Preserve, which you can Google if you care. Near as I can make out, my dues pay the cost of sending me solicitations for more money throughout the year, all of which I ignore. Giving money to a greater diversity of organizations is just buying a ticket to the fights. (Yeah!… think about it!). It would be a luxury I can’t afford even if I liked fights — and I don’t.

    I grew up in a slum that was being burned down in a race war. Now I live in a barrio by choice, because I know how, and it’s easy, and the language barrier protects me from being perceived as stand-offish by my neighbors. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world. Sometimes it seems heroic just to refrain from adding to it.


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