What’s Wrong with the World

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There is no "them"

Those of you who have ever been involved in a project involving a small group, or perhaps in a small church, may be familiar with the phenomenon: You start out doing things, and you do some work and help, and then the time comes when you say to yourself, "Okay, that's enough. I've done enough for them. I'm sure they have other people who can do the rest. They can't expect too much from me."

The moment when you grow up in your interaction with that group is the moment when you admit the obvious. There is no them. Or, to put it alternatively, you are them. There is just that group of people. It may be ten, it may be two dozen. But what gets done is what that group of people, including you, does. There isn't some gigantic organization that exists apart from you, to which your contribution is just a drop in the bucket, which will continue getting just as much done without you. This is a small church, a small organization, a volunteer group. If you don't do it, it doesn't get done.

The fiction of "them" is very comforting. And unfortunately, it is fostered by our present societal arrangements in which so many things seem to be done by big groups--be they corporations, charities, churches, or government. Everything is big. And so being a mere fellow traveler and doing only, and only temporarily, the amount that seems reasonable (read "easy") is all too easy. Because after all, they can't expect too much, and they were doing just fine before you came along, and they will do just fine if you leave, or drop your involvement, or whatever. It doesn't really matter.

Now, the truth is, even in big organizations or agencies, everything that gets done for good gets done by human beings. But certainly in for-profit arrangements, or even arrangements where some people are paid, the "them" idea is easy to maintain. What do you mean by "them"? Why, the employees of the corporation, of the charity, or of the government agency. They are official. They get paid to do this stuff. Anything you add is lagniappe, gravy, extra.

But in the pure volunteer organization, this is just false. There is no distinction. In a very small church, there is at most a very small paid staff--perhaps only the priest or pastor. That's it. And it's hard to keep up the lie to oneself that one pastor can do everything that needs to be done. In some groups, there isn't even that. There are just a few people who have stepped forward and been willing to be on the board (for free) or even, in a totally informal fashion, to do most of the work. And that's it. They're happy for your help, but no one should be under any illusions that his work is extraneous. There are so few of us that all of our work is important. If we don't do it, it doesn't get done.

This has all been borne in on me as I have been involved in a signature-gathering campaign in my local area. And it's rather a nuisance to have to come to that grown-up conclusion and to abandon the fiction of "them." But salutary, nonetheless.

On a similar theme, there are some passages in Annie Dillard's rather diffuse but at points very good Holy the Firm:

God...leaves his creation's dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were; God kann nicht anders. This process in time is history; in space, at such shocking random, it is mystery....Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead...But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generation which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day....Who shall ascent into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? "Whom shall I send," heard the first Isaiah, "and who will go for us?" And poor Isaiah, who happened to be standing there--and there was no one else--burst out, "Here am I; send me."

Cross posted at Extra Thoughts

Comments (22)

I learned many years ago that in any volunteer organization or community group, that only 3-10% of the people in it will do the work of maintaining it or trying to expand it or work to accomplish the group’s goals.

This means that a dedicated minority can take over any group it has a mind to through its very zealousness and willingness to do the work. This how Hollywood unions were infiltrated and taken over by communists in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s how the early Church got itself a hierarchy and set of orthodox dogmas. It’s how feminists have gotten hold of many chanceries, and it’s how the homosexual agenda has been so successful in such a short time in convincing people that “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Homosexuals, already over-represented in various fields like media, Hollywood and TV, arts, criticism, foundations (and sadly, the Church and its seminaries) were positioned to use all those organs and institutions to spread their propaganda – homosexuality = normal = good; and religion = moralistic = judgmental = bad.

Groups are always steered by those who are the most determined to grasp the wheel. Sullivan’s Law states that any organization which isn’t structurally bound to conservative principles will automatically become “liberal” in the unclassic sense over time.

This is why the Church is the most hated Christian body in the West. It is indefatigable in its conservatism. The Orthodox Church has been much more accommodating on many issues like birth control, divorce, celibacy of priests. It’s not seen as intransigent.

It is also why Evangelical moralism is so thoroughly detested and its believers portrayed as wild eyed, slavering lunatics by the media.

Our Constitution was meant to canonize conservative principles of government, but failed against the onslaught of various constituencies which desired more power for itself: the three branches of government, each extending their reach and power, and even a fourth branch of government, the Fed Reserve System effectively dictating how an entire economy shall function, and is essentially autonomous.

This is human nature, the general sloth that decides to let “them” do it.

In politics, the work is mind numbingly boring – interminable meetings of infinite minutia and issues no one knows anything about, an endless supply of complainers (voters) demanding the fatted calf for themselves alone. Constant schmoozing and money grubbing for donors, a narrow lookout for the main chance, the truly self-aggrandizing opportunity, a willingness to work sixteen hour days at an incredibly tedious task; and no wonder these fellows tend to drink and seek momentary comfort in the arms of a groupie or a hooker.

There are a few men who can handle the job and keep it in balance and perspective, but they’re rare. Mostly it’s a bunch of lawyers bored with law (which is very boring, too) hoping to achieve fame and fortune and love through getting an ever greater amount of power.

I'm fortunate, I suppose, in that I mostly work on projects so unpopular and with groups so small that no one wants to "take them over."


I mostly agree with you. I left practical politics and refused to follow my father to law school because I was not one of the blessed minority who found either profession anything more than "mind-numbingly boring." The focus of my interest has always been the mission of "the Church," by which phrase you seem to mean the Catholic Church, which is what I mean. Unfortunately, and despite my fond youthful illusions, I have no vocation to the priesthood, and working for the Church as a layman has always been a dicey business. Hence my career woes. I'd be much more "respectable" if I joined a church in which I was ordainable. But sort of like Groucho Marx, I wouldn't want to be a member of any clerical club that would have me.

I've learned that, for most educated, committed Catholics, the only feasible path is to work at some sort of secular profession and find one's fulfillment elsewhere: family, prayer, worship, study, and volunteer service. The last doesn't have to be the kind of thing Lydia is doing right now, though it can be and I approve of it. But whatever it is, if it isn't motivated primarily by love for God and one's neighbor for his sake, it won't be worth doing.



Leadership, though, can be a very satisfying thing, even directing a small group in its task. When Ive been able to lead a group of musicians and engineers on one of my projects, it's a great pleasure most of the time.


I find that through prayer, a secular profession becomes holy. Not in a "churchy" sense, perhaps, but as service to God and men.

In my music, I often write lyrics that make no mention of God, and yet, I mean them to lead people to God in some way. The same with instrumental music I compose.

In my fiction, I hope to get the reader to engage serious questions and problems of human existence in both a fallen world, and also the problems of faithful people suffering regardless of their hope, prayer, and devotion because life doesn't necessarily become less difficult with God. Prayer ameliorates many issues of human immaturity, ignorance, and misunderstanding, and provides some haven of peace, but life is still not easy to bear; and the more faithful one is, the less there is a natural place for one in the world (and even the Church).


I agree that a sound spiritual life can sanctify one's secular profession. That holds especially in the arts, which you seem to pursue. But that doesn't make most of the ones open to most of us any less boring. I'm still trying to figure out how to get through the rest of my life doing things on the order of selling houses or cars. ;)


You're right. A great many lucrative tasks lack challenge, satisfaction, or interest either immediately or after awhile. Even creative work that I do, I frequently have to force myself to do it. It's more fun when I get to work with others.

I have a theory that humans weren't meant to live much past forty because after that we do a lot of treading water until we pass on, and that's tiresome. As beautiful as the world can be, and as pleasing at times, it's still a prison, a fallen and uncomfortable cage where everything is always slightly (if not greatly) out of synch with truth, beauty, and goodness; and where we find ourselves in communion with each other rarely and briefly regardless of our sincerity, compassion, and empathy.

On the contrary, we were meant to live forever. :-) For myself, I'm happier after forty than I was, on average, before. And now you know I'm over forty.

On the contrary, we were meant to live forever.

Yeah, and the best thing is that, when we get to the other side, we won't be doing boring things for money—a necessity for most of us, made so by original sin.

I guess I have a little different picture of "ordinary" life; I don't think that even mundane tasks and ordinary jobs need to be boring if we choose not to make them so . . . If anyone is interested (note: shameless self-promotion here), you can read about it in this post at my weblog, Inscapes: http://inscapes.blogspot.com/2009/07/quotidian-mysteries.html


Well Beth, if St. Paul had to make tents and Spinoza had to grind lenses, I should not complain. Mea culpa.

:-) (Believe me, I complain plenty . . . but I'm trying to learn not to so much!)

Committees -- what's more boring than committee work? Sanctification is too delicate and precious a thing to risk by attending committee meetings. When it comes to such burdensome and dangerous work, let "them" do it!

Mike B. -- Now I think I will have to agree with that, despite my attempt to believe what I said. Full-faculty meetings are perhaps even worse than committee meetings, don't you think? [Got one today, in the summer, when not even being *paid* -- how unfair is that! Unfortunately, I *am* they in this case -- so I guess I'd better be praying for *some* sanctifying effect, since I can't get out of it. :) ]

We should enter our daily labors as gift-givers and not as self-interested parties involved in a transaction.The more I keep that at the fore, the easier it is to transform the most mundane of tasks into white knuckle affairs of personal sanctification. Writing a routine business plan can be as exciting as teaching a teenage son how to drive while resisting the urge to wring his neck.

This post does raise a troubling point; why are there so few "them" and what does that say about the way we Christians kive out our vocations?

What's somewhat funny about me is that when I was on our church's liturgy committee (while it briefly existed) I discovered that I actually enjoyed meetings. I like discussing and arguing minutia since I'm detail oriented in my work and God is in the details. I also liked the people watching aspect of studying personality and character, and the things people revealed about themselves in offhand ways.

But then, I don't have much daily interaction with lots of people.

I have thought about running for office from time to time but my CV looks like the granola nutbar who's always the local candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. It's the same reason my showing up for jury duty is a waste of time. The prosecution always throws me off the panel when they hear the word "writer" or "musician".

I also wanted to serve on the Finance Committee of my church because I believe that careful stewardship of other's people money given in trust is a sacred duty (and money saved in one area can be used to do good in other areas). But our pastor would have none of that kind of scrutiny. Only a rubber stamp suited him (and those that followed him). Thus, of course, various remodels of the rectory ended up costing twice or thrice what they would have if properly monitored (and used volunteer help from parishioners in contracting fields).

why are there so few "them" and what does that say about the way we Christians kive out our vocations?

Well, Americans generally do volunteer a lot, but I think I just tend to choose projects that don't happen to have a lot of volunteers. This is partly because I'm such a picky person and partly because I tend to like ad hoc projects rather than things that have been around for a while and have a large number of different purposes. But of course for that very reason these end up being situations where there are very few people involved to do the work.

Mark, I can't get over your saying that you like meetings. Perhaps you like them partly because you don't get too agitated about what they do.

Some churches I've been in suffer from a lack of volunteers (or at least enthusiastic ones) because they start programs that they think will be wonderful before finding out if there are sufficient people gifted and called to work in them. I know I was always being asked to work at AWANA; apparently since I am a mother I am automatically supposed to want to spend lots of time with other people's children too. But it's not something I can do; my gifts, personality, everything are unsuited to it. Buts everal churches I've been in felt they MUST have their AWANA program and were reduced to begging for workers every year, right up to opening night. That's not the case with the program in our community now, but that's partly because a lot of the college students will get involved for just a year or two, which takes up the slack from the locals.

Of course, there is also inertia and just plain selfishness and laziness that keeps people from getting involved in ministries and persevering in them -- human nature exacerbated by a highly self-centered culture. But sometimes it's because somebody's vision up top didn't match the gifts of the people expected to bring it about.

I think I just tend to choose projects that don't happen to have a lot of volunteers.

I wasn't asking about Americans in general, but Christians in particular. I doubt there are many priests or pastors out there wondering how to manage the abundance of help. Having said that, the lack of fellow laborers should not dampen my own willingness to work in the vineyards.

I like meetings because of the free food :)

Remember, the difference between a thou and a them is a me and a u. I have no idea what that means, but it looks good on paper.

The Chicken

Remember, the difference between a thou and a them is a me and a u. I have no idea what that means, but it looks good on paper.

There is no i in team, but there is a me.

This is why democracy sucks: Less than 5 % of a population is educated, intelligent, practical and disciplined enough to get things down on a level larger than their own lives.

Alex Birch writes: "This is why democracy sucks".

And you would recommend --- what?

"Less than 5 % of a population is educated...".

Define "educated".

Anent working, Agatha Christie wrote that a true professional is known when they work despite the fact that the job is pointless, not appreciated, that the work is going badly....
All others are amateurs.

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