Kerry Temple '74 | May 17, 2018
The other day I got a letter from a young friend with lots of questions. He finished college a couple of years ago with an interest in a writing career, but first he wanted to do volunteer service work. So for the past year or so he has been in a raggedy part of Chicago working with children who may never get the kind of life choices he is now trying to make. The gist of what he asked was this: “I’ve told the people here that I want to help others through writing. But to them ‘helping’ means food, clothing and shelter, not ideas, words and literature. I’m thinking maybe they’re right, that I should forego journalism and stay here and help humanity. How do I best do good?”
That’s a question I put to myself once, long ago. It was a frequent theme of beery late-night talks when we’d range from Thoreau to Gandhi to Joan Baez and draw up hypothetical lives filled with good intentions. Premed students would all be jungle doctors; the lawyers would all help the poor. I wanted to write something worthwhile. We would all do good. Years ago.
The last time I remember asking the question, I was a young reporter on a little daily in a part of Wyoming that was being stripmined. Doing good meant writing environmentally sensitive articles and challenging the city fathers who thought apartment complexes and trailer courts in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains were good ideas. I left there shortly after McDonald’s and Kmart arrived. The last thing I heard, the lovely cottonwoods lining Coffeen Avenue had been leveled to turn the street into a four-lane highway, and the ornate courthouse had been obliterated by a modern monolithic county-city building. So much for doing good.
My friend’s letter took me back to those days of hope. All races would work together in building the Great Society. We would save the whales by singing and find God by meditating transcendentally. We had our troops out of Vietnam and Nixon out of the White House. All visions were ascendant; power to the people.
I don’t know what happened; I lost a decade or two somewhere. I get this letter about doing good and all I can think is, “Doing good? Are you kidding? With terrorists loose in the Middle East? With drug gangs taking over our schools? With deviants threatening the American family, and all the illegal aliens getting in? And today’s TV and today’s rock stars and AIDS and the killer bees?”
I have gotten old.
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