“Small Gestures” in Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular

Coles, Robert

Crossroad, 1996

pp. 109 - 112

This piece tells of a Harvard girl who is struggling through her freshman year. From a blue collar background, she has had to earn part of her way cleaning the bathrooms of other students: “I’ve had some terrible times here. The worst of them is being a cleaning lady for some of these rich guys. They are unbelievably arrogant, and I hate this way of earning money. What it comes to is that the poor here sweep up after the rich and they keep talking about a ‘community’ here, and we’re all supposedly part of it.” In one room she swept up after some Crimson writers. One of them showed her a wonderful piece he had just written on the rottenness of apartheid. It was a powerful attack on the state department. Then he tried to put the move on her. He was “’a skunk with a filthy mouth. Some people around here talk the best line in America, and everyone thinks they’re the best people in America, or the smartest, anyway, and then they go and act this way, like snotty animals, out to take what they can get, and who cares how someone else feels about it?’” Coles: “One can write lofty editorials and falter badly in one’s moral life. One can speak big-hearted words, write incisive, thoughtful prose, and be a rather crude, arrogant, smug person.” Dickens spoke of “telescopic philanthropy” to describe what the student quoted above had witnessed: “someone whose compassion for far-off South Africa’s black people was boundless (and eagerly announced to others) but who could also, near at home, behave toward another person as shamelessly as any South African bureaucrat might contrive to act. No wonder Jesus spent his short time with us doing every day acts of charity, offering those small gestures, emphasizing the importance of the concrete deed–the pastoral life. Let us for whom words come easy, and who like to play with ideas and call the attention of others to our words and ideas, beware. Our jeopardy is real and continuing.””