Thursday, July 29, 2010

If You're Going to Do Good Work, the Work Has to Scare You

I got lost the other night on McDade Boulevard and, uncharacteristically, I was a little scared. 

Not that much scares me in terms of neighborhoods. I used to live, among other odd places, in a dodgy part of Brooklyn where every morning I woke to dozens of empty crack vials littering my stoop (no, they were not mine or those of anyone I knew!). 

But this place made me feel scared in a lonely, bleak, hopeless sort of way. 

I saw a toddler, naked except for a drooping diaper, leaning in the open doorway of a tilted, shabby rowhouse. The highway, with zooming boats of decrepit cars roaring past, was about 10 feet away.

BVM was right there...the Blessed Virgin Mary. A church. It was dark gray and looked, to my eyes, sort of foreboding. How many people, I wondered, actually went there? And how do we justify this large, sturdy church in the midst of crumbling, subpar homes?

There was a serious air of poverty about. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could.

But I was lost.

I asked for directions at a gas station, leaning into the bulletproof partition that protected the cashier. She seemed sort of put out that I asked, even though I was also paying her fifty dollars cash to fill up. This woman--begrudgingly--gave me utterly crappy, totally wrong directions that only took me miles more astray, toward the even bleaker city of Chester.

None of these places (and I was--embarrassingly--lost after an Away swim team meet. How ridiculous!) seemed like places I would ever care to visit again.

And that got me thinking: I need a GPS (though I seldom get lost). But also: I believe in the saying, "If you're going to do good work, the work has to scare you," (as Andre Previn, the composer, once said). 

Chester and its environs scares me. But I have always intended to do good work, somewhere, somehow.

I think often of how best to help. Teaching? Tutoring? Exposing people to the arts? Or should I seriously just get a bus and fix it up and use it to drive in fresh vegetables from the farms and maybe even provide some free or low-cost outpatient medical care? Should I deliver books to these neighborhoods?

Should I become a physician now, which has long been nagging at me? A trauma nurse?

I am writing a new book right now, for which I have high hopes...maybe that's part of my calling.

The answer, I assume, will come to me. 

In the meantime, I call on everyone else to consider how they can be of service to others--and I mean really help people (not give a bit of money here and there to bureaucrats on your side of the political fence). 

We are here to help each other, to make a difference. Or, at least, that's the only reason I can see for even existing.

I won't make this about God. I am not much into church or organized religion, especially not of late. I have been very turned off by the intolerant types who seem drawn to such things, and I sincerely wonder if I will ever be able to forgive and forget.

I think, though, that the purpose of life has to do with creating meaning where there may have been none before.

What is the good work that you can do? Are you scared to try it? If so, then you simply have to do it.


  1. Fascinating and insightful! You've given me much food for thought.

    P.S. You can do anything you want to do. The trick is figuring out what you most want to do and then taking action.

  2. I don't think that doing good work has to necessarily be scary but I agree that it often is. I guess that comes from being outside our comfort zone. I'm not a very brave person so doing doing things that take me outside that comfort zone is sometimes frightening. Along with some of our other sisters, I volunteer several times a month at a safe house for trafficked women. It's not in a particularly great neighborhood and I have to admit that when I leave to get to the car I'm often very nervous. But--when I'm inside the house, my comfort level with the women themselves is improving. I guess that's something!
    When I lived in Wilmington, I went several times to vigils at the prison the night of an execution. And once again, as I got more used to sometimes having guards with dogs on duty or having proponents of the death penalty shout at me, it got a little easier. So I guess for me that sense of being afraid is something I know will happen and I just have to weigh each situation and decide whether or not my convictions are stronger than my fear.

  3. Hi Sister,

    You've made me think of something: "good" work doesn't, as you point, out, necessarily have to be scary, but perhaps our best, most meaningful work scares us? I think the "scaring" has to do with fear not only for our personal safety, but perhaps also fear of failure, fear of attemptint the impossible.

    Do you mind my asking where this safe house is (is it anywhere near an American city, or is it in another country?).

    Thanks for writing.



  4. Wow--Sr. Anne Marie, that is a daunting thought, to know that there is such a place near here and, worse, a need for such a shelter.

    Feel free to e-mail me ( and let me know more, if you care to. Maybe there is something I can do to help, at some point.



  5. Great post! Work that makes an impact is definitely daunting. I think tackling poverty on the ground, improving the life of people at the bottom of the social ladder, can come across as scary at times because a few of these people are less-than-savory characters who have been hardened by life, and their acts overshadow the decency and honesty of all the others. Places don't scare you (pretty residential neighborhoods, bustling commercial areas) usually aren't the ones where people need help.

    I strongly believe that deep down, just about everybody wants his/her own kids to succeed and have a better life. It seems that making a contribution to underprivileged children would be a great fit with your training as an educator. I also love the idea to use the arts to reach children.

  6. Thanks, Aurelie. I decided that I will probably start locally with the arts idea...see how it flies and how much help I need, if there is a good response.

    I am also mulling over my long-held idea of becoming a NP (trauma specialty)...looking into how to fund that.