In A Perfect World

Life is full of odd and striking coincidences. Upon reading the memoir of a tough-minded Portland businesswoman [1], I was captivated by the book’s advocacy for a local not-for-profit that was dedicated to advocacy for at-risk children whose lives had been upended by family crises that had involved the intervention of government agencies. Reading the memoir prompted me to look up this organization and send them a message, and I was told that there was a meeting that same evening at a local hospital where a couple of acquaintances of mine work for those interested in becoming court appointed advocates for children. Although the notice was a bit short for me, I agreed to come to the meeting and when I arrived just barely in time I found myself to be one of the youngest people there and one of the few men in a group that was overwhelmingly older and female. We watched a video, introduced ourselves and our interest in helping vulnerable children by speaking for their interests in the midst of the removal of children from abusive family backgrounds. When it was my turn to speak, I rather shyly alluded to my own personal experiences in such difficult situations of family drama. Then, in my discomfort, the speaker made a comment that struck me as deeply coincidental, when she said that in a perfect world there would be no need for people to serve as advocates for vulnerable children, but that we do not live in a perfect world.

It struck me as a particularly providential comment because about a decade ago or so, in the aftermath of my father’s death, I had written a play called In A Perfect World. In this play, I wrote a semi-autobiographical character as being a survivor of child abuse who was struggling to deal with the awkwardness of a successful romantic relationship while also serving as a court-appointed advocate for two boys from troubled family backgrounds, although I did not not know anything at the time about there being an actual organization devoted to this. I had simply invented one up in my own mind because it seemed obvious to me that one should wish to protect and encourage young people in the face of the darkness and evil of this world, and because it comes fairly naturally to me to think of organizations and the logistics of providing for the well-being of others. Of course, at the time that I wrote the play I was in too dark of a place, and too self-absorbed of a place, to readily volunteer out of my time and energy for the sake of anyone else, even (especially) those with whose difficulties I had a deep supply of compassion and empathy and understanding. Nevertheless, although I did not immediately act on this particular idea of mine, or seek out existing institutions that served those needs, when I happened upon them, and when the speaker happened to coincidentally trigger a reminder of my own writings on the subject that precisely mirrored what the organization had been doing for decades, I felt compelled to do what I could to be a part of it myself.

This led first to the filling out of forms at the meeting itself and turning them in to apply as a volunteer. Then I scheduled a personal interview with one of the employees of the organization as required, which ended up taking about an hour in a Starbuck’s in downtown Vancouver. The interview was itself somewhat exhausting, as it involved the answering of all kinds of uncomfortable personal questions to determine a potential volunteer’s suitability, involved questions of logistics and motivation, and included some hypothetical examples of situations and asked for thoughts on what should be done given certain facts. After finishing the discussion, I was immensely dehydrated, but strangely unwilling to sate my thirst with sweet tea at the coffee shop. At the end of the meeting, after explaining how I would be able to handle the tricky logistics, and I had agreed to two background checks to demonstrate my fitness for volunteering, all of which was duly done so that I could begin the lengthy training of thirty hours of class time both online and in person over the course of the next month and a half, which are to begin shortly as I write this. If all goes well, then starting in about July or August I will be able to help a sibling group in Washington County deal with the vagaries and challenges of the court system, as I wrote about in my play all those years ago.

When we say something would happen in a perfect world, there are a variety of ways that we can mean this. We can posit something as desirable or admirable but as unfeasible given our fallen human nature. There may be some matters or qualities or states that we long for and that we want to see in our own lives and in the lives of others, but may feel somewhat cynically that they are simply not possible given the generally wicked and corrupt state of humanity. In this way our idealism may be recognized and acknowledged even as our cynicism and skepticism takes precedence in determining what actually can be done given the constraints of reality. For example, when I wrote my play In A Perfect World, I did so pointing out that in such a world it would obviously be the case that children would not be abused or taken advantage of or be the pawns in the cynical chess games of feuding parents. In a perfect world there would be enough people willing and able to stand up for those who were vulnerable to provide encouragement and support, and that no one would be tormented for decades for the mistakes of other people in their lives. That we do not live in a perfect world is taken as obvious by everyone except those who are deluded or self-deceived, or those who are seeking to discredit others by building a straw man to be battered down with irony and savage wit, as Voltaire caricatured the beliefs of optimistic European idealists in his novel Candide.

Yet the same idealism that can all too often be undercut by our cynicism and despair about the wickedness of this world can also be a spur to see as much justice within our world as is possible [2]. Just last night, for example, at our congregation’s monthly Bible study, I was able to point out to our local minister a couple of examples of biblical law that called for the wages of workers to be paid on a daily basis, without any sort of arrears, because a day laborer is dependent on those wages for daily sustenance. Those of us who have dealt with the trouble of having wages and payments in arrears for weeks, months, or even years [3] are familiar with the injustice of not being paid for one’s labor, even as all too many of us are experienced with desiring a full day’s pay regardless of how much work we may do. The experience of injustice and the knowledge of this world’s injustice can either make us cynical and despairing of finding any justice or goodness, or it can be the fuel to our own longings to be just and to see justice in our world, to see our world redeemed of its corruption and to be a better one. Yet which option of those we choose is not foreordained, but is rather a moral choice that each of us has to make for ourselves based on our own temperaments and backgrounds and moral character. Often we have a complicated tension between a desire to see justice meted out on our enemies, on those who commit injustices against us, even as we understandably desire mercy rather than justice for ourselves, where we are even aware of our need for mercy rather than falsely believing that justice for all is something that we would actually want.

The martyred president Abraham Lincoln has been discussed, especially by such noted political philosophers as Harry Jaffa, as having viewed the noble ideals of the Declaration of Independence as a maxim to be aimed at even if it was never reached. The claim that the equality of all mankind with regards to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is often taken to be a synonym for property, on the recognition that the laborer is worthy of his hire, and that the hardworking farmer should be the first to partake of his crops, instead of the last as it often is. Yet Lincoln’s noble belief that the Declaration was a target to be aimed at rather than a standard that had already been achieved did not receive universal commendation in his own time. In the late 1850’s, for example, an Indiana representative declared rather strongly that the Declaration of Independence, rather than expressing self-evident truths about the equality of man, expressed self-evident lies. Defending the interest of slaveowners who denied any sort of common humanity and fellow-feeling with black slaves, many of whom were their own offspring or near relatives as a result of a lengthy legacy of rape and forced concubinage, he denied that there was a common standing between slave and owner, even as the tangled family history of many of the slaves whose equality he cavalierly dismissed demonstrated the fact that there was no stark difference between master and slave that was impossible to bridge. One side viewed the obvious injustice of the antebellum world as a disproof of any view of justice that applied impartially across boundaries of race, gender, and class, while the other side viewed the obvious injustice that existed as a shameful state that deserved amelioration and reform.

Whether we choose to use the injustices as encouragement of our own cynicism, or whether we see it as fuel to work for our ideals, the reality remains that no matter how just we are, we do not have within us the capacity to create a perfect world of our own. For example, as it is written in Philippians 3:17-21: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Paul openly admits both horns of the dilemma, both that we should join in following godly examples of justice and righteousness, but also that there are people on this earth bent on destruction and evil, and that our genuine citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven, the New Jerusalem which will be brought to earth, and that until Jesus Christ returns and subdues all things to Himself, we will not live in a perfect world. We may even admit, if we are candid, that there are aspects of ourselves that secretly or not-so-secretly do not fully desire for Jesus Christ to subdue all things within ourselves unto His will. Indeed, if we are fully honest, we will recognize that the world is so hard to perfect because we are in it, and that we can make a world no perfect than we ourselves are. That is true whether we are activists seeking the righting of some giant social wrong, or whether we are volunteers seeking to defend the interests of children caught up against their will within the justice system as a result of the problems of their birth families. Do we let our problems discourage us from ever seeing good, or do we use them as fuel to make at least our little corner of the earth as decent and upright and just and compassionate as we can? The choice is ours.


[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to In A Perfect World

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