Editor and author Rod Dreher’s newly published, and already widely acclaimed, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming beautifully tells two stories: the story of Dreher’s sister Ruthie Leming’s and the story of Dreher’s own transformation in reaction to his sister’s life and death.
Ruthie Leming lived a quiet life within the bounds of the small Louisiana town of St. Francisville where she and Rod were raised -- a life as a wife, mother, daughter, and schoolteacher in which her “little way” of loving and caring sustained those around her. Dreher grew up longing for a cosmopolitan life; he left home even before finishing high school to set out on a path that hopscotched across America as Dreher became a public intellectual.
Dreher was led to reconsider this path over the nineteen months his sister fought an aggressive cancer that claimed her life in September 2011. During his visits to St. Francisville, Dreher was awestruck by the grace with which Ruthie accepted her illness and the outpouring of support from the community.
As Dreher notes, this outpouring of support was no grand philanthropy but a mirroring of Ruthie’s own “little way”:
The love that had sustained Ruthie through her cancer, and that now surrounded and upheld her family, came from somewhere. Like Ruthie, my mother and father had cultivated it, in this little patch of ground, all their lives. They had no grand gestures of philanthropy or goodness to their name, but rather they were always faithful in small things. When Paw was the parish sanitarian, he helped impoverished people, mostly poor black folks, bring running water and sewerage into their houses. These people didn’t have the money to pay for the job themselves, so he showed them how to do it right, and never asked for a penny in compensation. He did it because he was their neighbor. You live in one place long enough, and live that way, the interest on your good deeds will add up.
Dreher’s book is an encomium of such philanthropy. But it interestingly also suggests why such deeply personal philanthropy is not as esteemed in some traditions as anonymous philanthropy. People act philanthropically in small communities not only because it is good to do, but because they anticipate an “interest” on their good deeds when their own moment of neediness arrives and they can hope their neighbors will reciprocate their care.
Such deeply personal philanthropy can lead to shame before benefactors for those who feel they may not be able to reciprocate gifts in full measure. Dreher comments about someone whom his parents sometimes helped:
Though they were invited inside, Mr. Huey felt they had no right to come into our house. Poor country folk are like that sometimes.
Anonymous philanthropy cannot earn interest, because no one knows to whom the interest should be paid, nor does it lead to shame before specific others, because beneficiaries cannot identify their benefactors.
Yet, even if it is not the very highest form of philanthropy, the philanthropy Dreher witnesses in his hometown during his sister’s illness is truly very moving.
It was so impressive to Dreher and his wife that they moved from their big-city life to St. Francisville in order to enjoy the riches of a confined, but closely connected, community.
A few months after moving to St. Francisville, Dreher and his son Lucas had an opportunity to offer their own philanthropic care when a local tavern lit on fire:
After a minute or two Lucas and I noticed people rushing into the antique store next to the tavern and hauling furniture, glassware, and paintings out to the parking lot. They were afraid the flames would leap the alley and set the antique store ablaze. Without giving it a second thought, we hustled across the street and into the store, joining the crowd of neighbors helping the shop owner save her inventory. . . . Back at home I thought about how for the first time in a long time, I had been a participant, not an observer. I had gone downtown to watch the fire and write about it, and ended by doing my part to help a neighbor in distress. For once I was not content to be abstract, analytical, and contemplative. Doing good things instead of thinking good thoughts -- that was new to me, and it felt right.
This sort of doing good things is a high aspiration, and it makes for truly caring communities. Even as we live in an increasingly mobile world, where most of us study, then work and live, far from our hometowns, we need such communities. As Dreher concludes:
The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are took weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it can assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone. Only your community can do that.