When Great Gets in the Way of Good
By Meghan Topp
June 14, 2012
Everyone wants to do something great.
Teachers, youth ministers, doctors, soldiers, businessmen, college students, social justice advocates, pro-life advocates… we´re all out to do something great. We´re going to change lives or fight for justice or save souls or be really successful and live in a penthouse in New York City dressed like a Mad Men throwback and die a millionaire.
We want to be somebody, and ever since we were kids, we´ve been told that we should change the world.
The problem with setting out to ¨do something great¨is that what one is setting out to do is fill out the ideal we´ve cast for ourselves. We all have our own special ideal that particularly tempts us, but for many people, the ideal is Savior. It was for me, when I went to Haiti.
I learned from one of my Haitian friends that there is a disturbing trend growing in Haiti, due to the influx of development aid handled only by white Americans—kids are learning that their only value is to look pathetic.
What I learned is that Americans travel to Haiti expecting it to be just like on TV. They think that they're supposed to come and save the children with an ¨oh, I just want to adopt them all!¨ They come anticipating the flies, the squalor, the cute children so dreadfully dirty.
And they have money in their hands.
They give the money to the kids that fulfill that ideal in their heads—the dirtiest children, the ones who grab their hands and cry ¨Oh, don´t go!¨
What´s the problem? The problem is that in Haiti, people are poor, but they are not dirty.
Even the poorest of the poor take a pride and dignity in their homes, in their santitation, in keeping what little they have clean and presentable. It´s what they have left, their dignity, and every Sunday they come out wearing their Sunday best.
But then Americans come. They see a kid wearing a nicely cleaned shirt, and they say ¨You´re not poor. Why are you asking for money?¨ and the kid goes home dignified but still starving.
So bit by bit, the kids learn to let go of their dignity. When they hear that white people are coming to their village, the mothers tell their children to go make themselves dirty so that maybe they can get a treat. They teach them the lines— ¨don´t go¨ —and how to pose for pictures… the poorest areas always had the kids who were used to posing for pictures.
Americans treated the children like beggars, not like human beings. They were a 30-second commercial on TV that they get to pose with on Facebook, not separate individuals with their own lives and complexities. And the children learned that, in order to eat, they had to act like beggars, and not human beings.
Visitors from wealthier nations should be careful how they give money—they should give it as a reward for singing a song or helping them with something, not because the children look dirty. Money ascribes value, and when visitors give money to kids because they'´re dirty, they teach them that it´s valuable to be undignified.
When I suggested this idea to certain visitors to Haiti, some reacted vehemently. How could the children be anything other than what we have been conditioned to see—pathetic? Certainly I must be a devastatingly coldhearted person to suggest that the money should not be freely handed out to everyone, they thought. In their worldview, they were the Saviors, and the Haitian children were the Pathetic Being Saved. Anyone who suggested otherwise was Evil.We all want to do something great.
But in reality, there is no such thing as doing something great.
If you set out to do something great—whether that´s to be a Savior, or a Self-Made Man, or a Freedom Fighter—you just end up blind.
People who are genuinely nice people can cause really bad things to happen if they get lost in a pursuit of greatness. In order to believe that we are great, we have to construct a whole world in which we are superior and everyone else is inferior. Everything is reduced to an ideal with each person given their roles to play—Savior and Saved, Hardworking and Lazy, Tough-Minded and Weak, Justice Fighter and the Indifferent.
A wise professor once told his class that most marriages fail for a simple reason—an inability to just see the other person and love the other person as they are, and be satisfied. Not to love an ideal of what they could be, or what we wish they are, but simply as they are, period.
Mother Teresa famously said, ¨There are no great things; there are only small things, done with great love.¨
These are the strangers in my life that have impacted me the most profoundly: my first-grade lunch lady. My elementary school nurse. My middle school bus driver. The woman at UVA who swiped people´s meal cards for lunch.
Because the lunch lady gave me free pizza every Friday while my mom was dying, so I wouldn´t be the only kid in the lunchroom who couldn´t have pizza because we were paying for her operations. She sat with me during lunch hour because I was too preoccupied and sad to have conversations with the other kids.
Because my elementary school nurse figured out that my constant stomach aches just meant that I needed someone to talk to. She made sure to be there whenever I needed her.
Because my middle school bus driver didn´t put up with bullies, made everyone feel specially loved. She treated us all to pizza just because she liked us.
Because Cathy the Cardswiper knew each face behind the cards that she swiped, and always had words of encouragement for everyone. She let me go in early on frigid mornings after I´d had to stand in formation for ROTC for 2 hours and couldn´t feel my toes so I could have a cup of coffee and a hot breakfast.
Isn´t that funny?
Small things. Great love. Don´t get distracted. It´s the only way we can really do anything worthwhile.
Meghan Topp graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Religious Studies and is currently working on her Master's degree from the same. She took a year of absence to travel the world, serving at a public health NGO in rural Haiti and teaching in Honduras.