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09/23/2005 Archived Entry: "Goodness, badness, and institutional armor"

YESTERDAY AFTER A TRIP TO THE POST OFFICE, I turned the key in my truck and didn't get so much as a click. Uh oh. But in less than five minutes, a mechanic rode up on his white horse pick-up truck. He got me started, met me back at the service station (yes, it's an old-fashioned service station, where they'll actually pump your gas and fix your car), replaced a wire on my battery, then waved away my query of "how much?"

This isn't the first time these folks have made my day, either.

An hour later, my friend Pyramid Man showed up and threw himself into three and a half hours of steady, enthusiastic work on the roof of my garden shed. I hate asking for favors and I started out determined to build that shed entirely by myself. But sometimes,

it just takes two and that's all there is to it. A few days ago, another friend came by on his way to work and cheerfully helped me lift a pair of big windows into place. And Pyramid Man not only contributed all those hours of brains and brawn, he's offered to come back next week to do more.

This isn't the first time Pryamid Man has made my day, either.

And then I go to the Internet and see that the world is a dreadful place. And it is. It really is (as we are reminded to the point of eerie repetition).

But I'm struck every day by the contrast between the genuine horrors of the big world (especially the big government world) and the simple goodnesses of the small, immediate world.

No, I don't think the media should put more emphasis on "happy news" as a lot of people foolishly urged a few years ago. News is by definition nearly always bad. And government news even moreso. We want to know, ought to know, need to know. And I'm not enough of a Pollyanna to imagine that every small-town person is a saint in the making, either. (In animal rescue work, you meet some real rotters in the most idyllic settings; and of course even small towns have their share of crooks, backbiters, and bureaucrats.)

I'm just struck again by the fact that people, face to face, can be extraordinarily good, while the moment they surround themselves with the armor of large institutions, they become something harder, colder, and often more cruel.

Did you hear of a single "freelance" rescuer after Hurricane Katrina saying, "Get in my boat or I'll shoot your dog"? Or did you see one throwing a middle-aged woman down on her face and handcuffing her to "rescue" her? Nope. Only those wearing institutional armor had the artificial "courage" and authority to do that.

And I'm not the first to observe that most of the individuals I know would consider it unthinkable to steal my money or their next-door-neighbor's money; but those same individuals think it's a great idea for government to steal it. Institutional armor again. If they got a job with the IRS, they themselves would steal money more casually and self-righteously than a freelance thief.

Strip away the institutional armor and the world may not always be a benevolent place. But it becomes a place where individuals look each other in the eye, deal with each other as relative equals, and decide on their own what constitutes worthy or unworthy behavior. And recently I've been blessed to be surrounded by people whose choices are so worthy that I feel unworthy of such goodness.

I admit I sometimes don't quite know how to digest the contrast between the good around me and the evil "out there" that genuinely threatens to overwhelm all this individual cooperation and goodness.

Posted by Claire @ 12:21 PM CST

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