To make common cause with the losers

Wonderful commentary on a quote from Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, about doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer and the organization he founded, Partners in Health, which works in Haiti and half a dozen other countries to provide “a preferential option for the poor in health care.”

Late in the book, when Kidder begins — and very skillfully too — to draw together the threads of his narrative and to sum up (as best he can) his understanding of Farmer, he notes Farmer’s fondness for a particular phrase: “the long defeat.” At one point Farmer says to Kidder,

“I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. … You know, people from our background — like you, like most PIH-ers, like me — we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

In an interview Kidder gave earlier this year about the book, he commented on the phrase, and says that Farmer “probably picked [it] up from reading Camus.” But that’s not right: he got it from what we learn in Mountains Beyond Mountains is his favorite book: The Lord of the Rings. Galadriel says it: “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself, in letters, adopted and endorsed the phrase: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.


from “The Long Defeat,” by Alan Jacobs, The American Scene, 12 October 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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