“Beautiful Pathologies”: An Ugly Truth?

A recent New York Times online opinion essay, Beautiful Pathologies, got me thinking about the non-profit sector as a whole, and about Jewish organizations in particular.malkie

The writer tells the story of a class of medical students waiting eagerly to be able to witness an organ transplant. After a lengthy process, a fellow student was paged to leave class because a transplant would potentially be taking place:

 “It’s eerie to think about that morning, the strangeness of medical students cheering the news of someone’s death. Yet these contradictions happen all the time in our education. Our lecturers say, ‘This is a great case,’ when describing a toddler who died from a rare cancer. Or, ‘Look at this beautiful pathology,’ when holding up the clogged heart of someone’s father. I wonder if other professions share these kinds of perverse excitements. Do human resources trainees hear of ‘great’ instances of sexual harassment? Do law students study ‘beautiful’ murder cases?”

I relate to this feeling of eeriness. After all, there are so many non-profits that have to make their case to funders and what better way than to personalize it. So the most desperate stories of clients who benefit from the organization’s activities are shared and the hope is that people are moved to help. At times it feels exploitative and other times inspiring—after all, we are hearing the most incredible stories of human resilience.

A future doctor learns from watching a transplant. When heart-wrenching stories are shared, funds are raised to support essential and valuable programs.

At the ISJL we are often in a position where we need to make the case for the organization; in the Community Engagement department here, we are now also working with congregations aiming to address the needs of their larger community. It’s important that we pay attention to how we think and talk about these needs. Does it benefit us to highlight the shockingly low literacy rates in places like our home base of Mississippi as we work on a program to bolster literacy? Perhaps. But it is also important to envision what the community would look like if everyone was a fluent reader. Perhaps it can be sufficiently moving to focus on the future, and how the community can look when everyone is a fluent reader.

But then, when we achieve that goal, will the support run out? Will we see slip back to lower literacy levels? Is the ugly truth that we need some level of “beautiful pathology” to keep us focused on making things better – or can we build a good case from good stories, and keep the good going without relying on “worst case” stories?

What do you think? 

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