Taking on the Impossible Time and Time Again

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 - 4:49 am

Taking on the Impossible Time and Time Again

In the mid-1970’s, I learned about Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression. Moved by her story, I began volunteering occasionally at the Catholic Worker house she founded on New York City’s Lower East Side. At Mary House, the Workers lived with the poorest of the poor, providing food, shelter, medical attention, and other forms of direct aid, as well as advocating and agitating for economic justice.

One of the Workers was named Kassie Temple. A brilliant writer with a Ph.D., she could have been a professor. Instead, she chose to share life with the poor, helping to keep hungry and homeless people from starving, dying of exposure to the elements, or being further brutalized — as well as engaging in political advocacy on their behalf.

I volunteered for a couple of days several times a year. Of course, every time I came back, a new wave of human misery had washed over the place. So one day I asked Kassie the question that had been vexing me:

“How do you keep doing this demanding work, day in and day out, when you know you’ll wake up tomorrow to problems that are as bad or worse than the ones you’re dealing with today?”

The answer Kassie gave me is below:

What you need to understand is this. Just because something’s impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”

Please take a moment to reflect on it, and ask yourself where we would be if people throughout history hadn’t taken on “the impossible” time and time again.

Kassie — who was with the Catholic Worker full-time for 27 years until she died ten years ago this month — set me on the path to an critical insight: While it’s important to be as *effective* as we possibly can in doing vital tasks, it’s even more important to be *faithful* to our gifts and the way they can help meet the world’s needs. When effectiveness is our only norm, we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, because they’re the only ones with which we can be effective.

No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we want to embrace high values, we must find some way to hang in for the long haul. Faithfulness to our gifts is the only way I know. We will die with our big goals unachieved — just as Dorothy Day and Kassie Temple did — but with the satisfaction of knowing we gave ourselves to them as fully as we could.

[There are now some 200 Catholic Worker Houses around the country. One of those houses is named in memory of Kassie Temple, and may she rest in peace.]

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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