On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Little Things

In the car this week I've been listening to a tape from an earlier American Chesterton Society conference. The topic is Distributism a System or A Value. The author's conclusion is that while it may not be realistic to see Distributism as a political movement that will compete with current political parties, or even as a competing economic system, that it's more important for us to embrace the values associated with it and in that way to not only change the world around us, but live authentic lives ourselves.

It got me thinking about the little things I do, and have done that were actually representing that viewpoint long before I ever heard of distributism. To homeschool our children was a distributist sort of thing to do (doing things at the smallest level rather than allowing the state to take over our children's education and direct their values by doing so),as were building our own house, growing a garden, raising animals for meat, making some of our own clothes, caring for our own elderly relatives, reading aloud, teaching other people's kids to knit, being a La Leche League Leader.

Sometimes it feels like we haven't made much of a change in the world. It feels like we've been heading towards A while everyone else was racing towards Z as John Holt once commented. Yet when I look back I wonder about some of those small things. If even the death of a butterfly can change the world, than what sort of an impact does having property where humming birds can find bee balm and butterflies aren't poisoned by weed killer. How many babies are there out there who ended up with more breastmilk because their mom spent time on the phone with me? Has it really helped that my sister and I patronized small yarn shops and bookstores? Does it make a difference when I give meat to people whose budgets are tight? What impact did it have when nurses in the hospital heard me reading to Auntie or singing to my mother or my mother-in-law? Did it help them see a different way of dealing with dying people? I don't know. I will probably never know whether anything I did had an particular impact. I take great comfort in Mother Theresa's comment that God doesn't ask us to be successful, he just asks us to be faithful.

I will almost certainly never be famous and highly influential. I will almost certainly only have an impact on one person at a time and in little ways with little things. It doesn't feel like saving the planet to use leftovers to make an omelet for brunch instead of stopping at MacDonalds, or sewing a homemade skirt instead of buying one made with slave labor. It doesn't change the world to have a discussion about Dorothy Day with my daughter, a discussion about Small Is Beautiful with my son-in-law, or medieval guilds with my son it only means living a life where all of us are actually thinking about the way that Christian doctrine intersects with our actual lives.

I'm only following in the path of people who were more own mentors. Shari who welcomed the stranger and even the strange, a mother-in-law who let her grandchildren make operation dolls and Bible trees, a mother who stayed up far into the night canning tomato juice or freezing home grown chickens, a grandmother who made dolls out of scraps of cloth and a grandfather who made a wooden cradle out of packing crates, a father who valued education (although deprived of it himself) but also demonstrated how to work physically incredibly hard even when his body was giving out.

What I realize the more I read about distributism and Catholic social teaching is the extent to which it feels right largely because it reflects so much of what I grew up being taught. Somehow my parents and my parents-in-law as well had a far more open approach to the poor, the odd, the drunk, the delinquent than a lot of their contemporaries. So did my pastors. Consequently, although I grew up in a pretty pietistic environment I wasn't anywhere near as sheltered as some of my friends. I knew what Weeks School was like (although I'd never seen the place), I knew people who were recently out of mental institutions, I encountered drunks, and old ladies with second grade educations (who made the most beautiful braided rugs you've ever seen). My parents didn't approve of the drinking done by the drunks, but my father kept right on hiring them, believing that they were still people worth taking a chance on. So while I didn't grow up in a Catholic Worker house, I grew up with a lot of the type of people who ended up there.

So did it make a difference that my father hired those people? Did it make a difference that our pastor didn't just serve the upwardly mobile? Did it make a difference that my mother provided rides to Sunday School and prayer meeting to a little old lady with a second grade education? On a global scale, on a national scale, even on a community scale, it doesn't feel like it made much difference at all. Yet on a human scale, it made all the difference in the world because it taught my sister and me something about the unique value of each human person. So, I guess I'll continue on doing the little things, being a distributist in the little ways and believing that St. Therese, Mother Theresa, and of course Chesterton knew what they were talking about.

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