Thursday, March 29, 2007

Let All Who Are Hungry...

This is one crazy week here. Getting ready for passover always is, and we're headed off to a wedding first, so everything has to be done ahead of time. Let us just say that advance planning isn't always my strongest suit and leave it there. A better, more loving wife would have done laundry sooner and made sure her husband wouldn't have to wear damp boxers (and no, this doesn't have anything to do with gender politics - I volunteered to pack and do laundry in exchange for him getting rid of the winter's worth of dog poop and the half-eaten dead possum that the melting snow revealed on the lawn - I think I got the better deal!), but since I'm not that wife, I might as well write a bit, while I'm waiting for them to get to merely damp.

The peak oil movement has a survivalist streak to it. There's quite a few people who hear that the peak is coming and believe that building up their stocks of ammo and heading for the hills is the way to go. I understand that impulse - it is the impulse to protect your own, the panic you feel when you realize that your society, which on some level is supposed to protect you, hasn't planned ahead for this one. And so there's a tendency of people to get into discussions about what happens when refugees or hungry folk come around, and a lot of times the answer is that you have to protect your own again.

And maybe sometimes that's true. But I also think that sometimes this is a product of reading too many science fiction novels. You know the kind - the end of the world comes suddenly, either because, as MEA says, Alien Space Bats change the laws of physics, or the giant asteroid hits the earth or whatever - and all of a sudden, 99% of the population of the earth conveniently (sure, it is a little sad, but Our Heroes coincidentally manage to avoid being eaten by cannibals) dies off, and then it is left to the survivors to recreate the world with their new religion (a la Octavia Butler), their coincidentally spared nuclear power plant and handy astrophysicist (Niven and Pournelle), the SCA (Stirling) or something or other else. In these books, you always know, somehow, that if you don't save every single crust of bread, your loved ones will starve to death, so it is a moral choice to say no to the wandering beggars. In fact, it is fairly moral, generally speaking, to do anything but eat them, because, after all, every refugee is a threat. And in the books, they usually have swords and big guns.

Well, I can't swear life will never be like this, but it is worth noting that in many hungry places in the world, including New Orleans in 2005, refugees were actually much more *vulnerable* to violence than they were aggressive. Despite the stories of rape and murder and mayhem (which turned out to be largely nonsense), and the people standing by their doors with big guns, most of the most desperately needy people did nothing more than wait politely, weep, beg for help and maybe sing a little. And that's true of most refugees in the world - these desperate people race across borders, trying to escape disaster or terrible violence, and they don't attack those around them - they wait, and pray for a little food.

During the great depression, thousands of young men and women took the rails because they were hungry and had no jobs. While they did occasionally commit acts of violence and fairly often stole small amounts of food, generally speaking, these young people were much more likely to be abused than to do serious harm. They were thrown out of towns with no food into the cold, because the law said no one who didn't live there could have the sun go down on them. They were raped and beaten up by other refugees and by locals. They were thrown in jail and set on chain gangs for the offense of being homeless. Writing about it later, many of them told stories of going to soup lines and being cast out hungry - because the town said that there was nothing for anyone but their own. A young man tells a story in David Shannon's _The Great Depression_ of travelling all winter through the midwest without a coat of any kind, and visiting, in each town, relief services and asking if anyone could give him a coat. He never got one.

Now it is possible that none of these places had a coat to give. It is possible that adding one more bone and two more potatoes to the soup pot would mean someone's child died of hunger - I don't know. But I think more likely, what happens is that when things get hard for us, we often panic - we look at what we have and we see all the terrible things that could happen - and so, we hold hard onto what we have, regardless of the consequences to others. Unlike the novels, we'll probably never know for sure that we'll always have enough - there isn't any way to be sure, sometimes, whether there will be more tomorrow or not. So how do we know whether to share or not, whether to greet the stranger with a gun or a plate? How do we know, if things change and the world seems uncertain, how to respond to one another?

Well, the world was once much poorer than we are, and there was a fairly universal set of rules for this. We in America are richer than the kings of old. And my religion, and every single other religion and society I've ever heard of tells the story of the stranger in disguise. The stranger who appears in the form of someone desperately poor and in need, and who turns out to be a god, or an angel in disguise. Those who turn the stranger away are punished. Those who welcome them in are rewarded.

In Judaism, it is Elijah who walks the world in the form of a stranger. And at this season of the year, at Pesach, just as the first new foods are coming, but before we are overwhelmed with plenty, we are to open our doors and call out that all who are hungry should come and eat. A few years ago, I was teaching Hebrew school to fourth and fifth graders, and I asked them what they would do if, in their comfortable suburb, someone were to come through the door and ask to join them. Almost universally, they were horrified at the thought of sitting down at the table with someone strange, who actually needed food badly enough to come in off the streets. They felt that such a person would inevitably be dangerous. Most of the children said that their families don't really call out, and don't really leave the door open.

And that, I think, is where we are at in our society. I'm not arguing against prudence and care, or that we will always have enough to give away. But we are rich now, and I think it is worth remembering that in every society and faith, the obligation to welcome the stranger and offer them something *even in the face of our own hardship* is central to our beliefs. These stories aren't always religious - sometimes it is the good king or another of power who travels in the guise of the poor. But the stories are universal. They are designed to teach us that nothing is ever certain, that we can never have *enough* for everything we need. We are supposed, in our vulnerability, to be willing to risk something for another both because it is right, and also, because we too have been strangers.

We Jews have been strangers many, many times. And the future, with all its difficulties, means that none of us can be certain that we will remain priveleged and comfortable. You can prepare perfectly and still lose your home, you can do everything right and have bad things befall you. There are things we cannot control. So each of us must live in the world as though we will someday be the stranger who turns to another for a hand. And each of us must be willing to offer one, if we expect to receive it.

This is much more risky than greeting the hungry with violence, or indifference. It is frightening. It is hard. What if the stranger who comes in to the door is angry, or smelly, or frightening? What if, despite our best rational precautions, harm is done? But then again, what if *we* do harm to an innocent other by allowing our fear to shape our thinking too much? And what if the stranger at our doorstep is Elijah, come for his glass of wine, his plate of food, and to see if we have the courage of those who came before us?

Chag Sameach All! A Happy and Peaceful Pesach!



Kiashu said...

Chag sameach, Sharon!

You're absolutely right about these stories of general collapse, they've got it backwards. There was just that one David Brin book where the log-cabin-survivalists are the ones who give the knockout-blow to civilisation as it's crawling its way up the ropes off the mat.

I'm in the process of writing a story in which a woman establishes a "retreat"... in her suburban home. And welcomes others, and I'm pretty sure she won't put a bullet into anyone, either (though she may have to smack someone in the groin once or twice). I'm not a good writer but it's an interesting thing to think about, a different kind of story of general collapse.

Squrrl said...

Thank you--that was lovely. I admit to having worried about what being prepared in a world full of unprepared people might mean, but you're right. The truly needy aren't generally violent--though those who fear a need that has not yet truly touched them certainly can be. I prepare in part so that I may, fate willing, always be able to face the world with open hands.

Anonymous said...

I can't take credit for the Alien Space Bats line. It's S.M Stirlings own.

I do think if people put more thought in how to share what we have rather than how to keep what we don't need we'd be better off.


RAS said...

Thank you, Sharon. That's the most elegant response I've yet seen to the survivalists. Maybe its just because I'm still fairly young, but whenever someone suggests shooting someone who's asking for food, I get a little too hot under the collar for eloquence.

My family was extremely poor when I was a child, and there were LOTS of times when we wouldn't have had anything to eat except for the generousity of strangers. I try to live by the motto "give to those in need when asked, so that you may be given to when it is your turn to ask"

M. Squirrel said...

This blog reminded me of the story of "stone soup".

But it also brought to mind my grandfather's 100 acres, as well as a past episode of "Jericho". One of the paranoia warnings is that when food can't come to the city, those city folks will all run into the countryside and "steal" your food. Of course, my grandfather raised cattle, and did it all by himself. I called him "the cow whisperer", because all he had to do was open up a gate and say, "Come on Cows", and they'de just tromp on through to the next herding needed.

But if he actually grew a crop on those 100 acres, I doubt, even though he used horses instead of tractors, that he would be able to bring it all in by himself. And many of today's farms are hundreds of acres, but thousands. Either these farmers are going to have to welcome the stranger in need of work in exchange for food, or watch their crops rot in the ground.

Anonymous said...

I think on of the things about fiction is that we don't generally (unless the author is able to depict a rich interior life) want to read about someone is who basically happy and getting along just fine. And if you want to read military fiction, you need to have good guys to cheer on and idenfity with (there are exceptions, S.M. Stirlings' master race of the Draka come to mind). This means you need to give your heroes really, really bad guys to fight. So sadistic flesheaters who have it for the hero and her children for no reason other than they prevented the bad guy from killing an innocent bystander, say, are a really good choice.

Now, add to it the fact that we get a lot of our impressions about how things really are from books and more so movies and when you have people picturing a world with less gass, Mad Max comes to mind.

I find this ironic, as I consider literature (which I define fairly loosely) as one the best ways to gain an understanding of other people and their circumstances.


Anonymous said...

Well said- although I still think that there is much to be gained by reading some of these sorts of books, if one can avoid being overwhelmed with fear by them. I am thinking more of what one can learn in terms of preparedness ideas. Even the Little House on the Prairie books can provide good food for thought for that matter, without painting people as violent savages.

RE: Elijah- Your comments made me smile as I recalled a seder when I was a kid and we opened the door at the appropriate time for him and there was a cat at the door.....(who knows....)

Sue said...

I agree with the previous commenter. It is tricky to not get caught up in the "bad guys are coming" thoughts, but the actual helpful hints and ideas about barter and things to stock up on are quite helpful. And some of the stories are good lessons on group dynamics and the turning of "a bunch of people caught in a situation together" into a team and/or a community.

And, LOL, I also have a similar seder story from 20 years ago, only in my case it was a St. Bernard dog who was at the door when it was opened... :)

Marty said...

Thank you for this! Maybe I've been "infected" by our national preoccupation with crazy terrorists--we have forgotten our own history of coping with economic distress. It is useful to compare some of the peak oil scenarios to the Great Depression, which unfolded gradually. People were callous and self protective but they also helped each other out.

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a name for being able to change oneself into various animals in the Harry Potter books? Elijah was just ahead of his time ;)

Anonymous said...

I think it's fine to read (and enjoy) "that sort of book" as long as long as one is an informed reader -- one is aware why the writer had things unfold the way she or he did. It's a bit like people who take the left behind books as 1) a true picture of what's going to happen and 2) a primer of what every Christian believes. If one reads the books that way, one is getting a pretty limited (and, IMO, false) idea on both counts. If one keeps in mind its fiction, one can, if it's to one's taste enjoy the story.


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