by: Lita Kurth on November 3rd, 2012 | 5 Comments »
Recently two seemingly unrelated events came together: I volunteered for Measure D to raise the minimum wage in San Jose to ten dollars an hour, and I watched another episode of the BBC’s excellent production of War and Peace.
In the episode I watched, a wealthy family, the Rostovs, is crating up their numerous possessions, china, furniture, dresses, vases, and clocks, to flee Moscow in the face of Napoleon’s oncoming troops. They look out the window: a long line of wounded Russian soldiers is wending its exhausted way through the city – now abandoned by most of the rich. At first, the family watches, curious, as the soldiers drag and are dragged past their front door. Then the daughter, Natasha, a person of great spirit and integrity, asks what it could hurt to let the wounded be brought inside and laid on the floor; the family is leaving the city anyway for their country estate.
Just as the family is about to leave, an officer begs them to take a few of the wounded along. Natasha’s father okays replacing a few boxes with soldiers. But when his wife hears of this, she bursts into an impassioned plea: These goods are our children’s heritage! You’ve mismanaged our money, made bad business decisions, and now you’ll deprive them of this too?
Her husband, chastened, goes back on his decision. Natasha, however, explodes: These are only things! I don’t want them! How can you save things instead of human beings? She points down at the soldiers: These are human beings!
In the end, they make the miraculous decision to leave their goods and fill the carts with wounded soldiers. As it happens, lying among the wounded is someone they know, someone very important, but they only find that out after the decision is made.
This extreme example demonstrates perennial truths: first, the suffering are always connected to us, and second, we won’t know how until we reach out. Time and again, life presents us this choice: some of our family’s personal wealth or the right act.
We ignore this choice easily enough when it’s only words printed on a ballot; we assume that if groaning, desperate suffering came right to our doorstep, of course, we would be heroic. But I’m not so sure. I’m coming to believe that generosity usually involves facing fear whether reasonable or not. And that we’re unlikely to be generous in big ways if we haven’t already been practicing in small ways. What allowed Natasha and her family to make that daring life-saving decision?
There must always be some mystery in the answer. Each of us has an internal Countess Rostov, tortured by fear, protecting only her personal family and their hopes for continued luxury. Of course, we pity those who suffer, but we just can’t relinquish private advantage.
Except that sometimes we can. Stepping into that mystery allows new things to happen, new connections and realizations to occur that we absolutely cannot know beforehand. One of the most heartening aspects of working on Measure D has been discovering that wealthier people, business owners such as the owner of the Details boutique on Lincoln Avenue, the owner of Azucar Latin Bistro, and Mike Fox, Sr.; politicians like Gavin Newsom, Mike Honda, Nora Campos, Paul Fong, Bob Wieckowski, and Luis Alejo, as well as numerous city council members, have come out strongly in support. At Sacred Heart Community Service, where I volunteered, I saw a wonderful Venn diagram of two circles far apart. One circle represented, “Where the magic happens” and the other, “my comfort zone.”
The most wonderful thing about Measure D is that it started in a San Jose State University sociology class taught by Professor Myers-Lipton whose students gathered 40,000 signatures and raised the money to put this measure on the ballot. The second most wonderful thing, for me, was that as I called through voter registration lists, I frowned when we reached a registered Republican and asked myself, “Why are we even calling Republicans?” and yet two Republicans I reached expressed strong support for Measure D. Realizing that the political landscape is not as cut and dried as I often assume was my own little miracle.
This election offers more than one opportunity to step beyond our inner hoarders and do the right thing, knowing the full results will not be apparent until we act. Let’s release our bold and passionate inner Natashas, and watch the magic unfold.