Blair: Loving the Particular

by Peter Blair | 3/25/12 10:00pm

In his magnum opus "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoevsky relates a conversation between the Elder Zosima and a Russian gentlewoman. The woman complains about her inability to love people close to her. Zosima memorably responds by quoting a doctor with whom he once talked.

"The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,' [the doctor] said, I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience.'"

Zosima's point here is clear. It is easy to feel love for abstract and general entities like "mankind." It is hard, on the other hand, to engage in the daily work of loving and serving concrete entities: this person with all his or her faults, that family with all its dysfunction. Dostoevsky was prophetic. In our age of global "causes" and campaigns to "serve mankind" we think we have become more generous, more altruistic, more loving. In fact, the more we have subsumed our love into abstraction, the less we have been able to love and to do concrete good for concrete places.

I mention "The Brothers Karamazov" here because President Jim Yong Kim's recent decision to escape Dartmouth and accept his nomination for the the presidency of the World Bank is being discussed in terms that embody the very abstraction Zosima describes.

President Kim is fond of John Sloan Dickey's slogan: "The world's troubles are your troubles." Indeed, Dartmouth's troubles have proven too small for the likes of Kim. The "world" beckons, eager to place its problems in Kim's capable hands. "After much reflection, I have accepted this nomination to national and global service," Kim wrote in his email announcing his nomination.

He is leaving us to serve some nebulous entity called "the globe." No matter that "global service" is a meaningless abstraction, for the world is merely an aggregate of particular places. No matter that Kim leaves behind him a large number of unaddressed messes, some of his own creation. The call to ever higher and higher service is inexorable.

I do not mean merely to raise questions about Kim's competency for his new job. To be sure, one could reasonably doubt whether a man incapable of constructing a satisfactory dining plan for a relatively small college should be handed control of the world's finances. Kim, however, was only here for a short while, and it may be that in the long term, he would have gotten more things right.

My target is not Kim's job transition per se, but the rhetoric that accompanies it and has consistently marked his presidency. What I mean to do is cast doubt on one of the prime superstitions of our age. We think the more universal our service is the more places and people it encompasses the nobler it is. The bigger, the better. We admire most those people who dedicate their lives to "humanity." Our heroes are George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, jetting off to developing countries to do their good deeds. Of course we should be grateful for every cent they've given to the poor, but we should not mistake occasional, distant almsgiving for love. Character doesn't come that easy.

Global service is often nothing other than the liberation from the challenges of the particular. Unless we learn to love the particular and the concrete, our efforts to "serve humanity" will be of little ultimate use to anybody. Unless we can see love through in small matters, we will not be able to see it through in large matters. If we cannot faithfully serve our friends and families despite the pain and annoyance they cause us, how do we think we can serve "humanity?" We will flit from place to place, cause to cause, never pausing long enough to gain a real knowledge of and love for those whom we are serving, nor learning how best to serve them.

Kim has answered the call to global service. In the meantime, on our campus we have to deal with problems of rape, hazing and alcohol abuse, and we are surrounded by poverty in the Upper Valley. These problems may not be "global," but they are ours. Our willingness to tackle them is the measure of our love.