Sunrise Magazine Online

Are We Expendable?

By Madeline Clark

The word "expendable" took on a new and poignant meaning some seven years ago, when W. L. White brought out his book with its account of an inadequate force contending against incredible odds in the early Philippine campaign of World War II. "Expendable" was the term applied to themselves by some of those who were sent upon missions from which they were not expected to return. Originally the expression referred to anything that would be consumed by use — it was not expected back. To the sensitive minds of those human beings involved, most of whom had hoped for a far different and more constructive destiny, this word had almost the force of an implicit slight, or a profound compliment, according to the way they took it. On the one hand, it implied that they could be spared, i.e., were not indispensable to the future; it gave them the ultimate in being thought nothing of: they could be written off and no one any the worse. On the other hand, it gave them the proud consciousness of having been chosen to carry out a mission which required uncommon heroism, endurance, and inner resource. Actually, after the first sinking of the heart, these men and women, who all the time were feeling for others more than for themselves, got on with the job assigned them and saw it through — and that was that.

To those of us who sat at home in our overstuffed armchairs and read about all this (and of course this is given as typical of much more like it) the word expendable was strangely disquieting. It was like a branding-iron, marking us with an ineffaceable impression. If all those others were expendable, what about us? And from a deep inner compunction at our own inglorious security, we went into action on the home front and found a place in the ranks of the helpers. Thus multitudes of people moved out of their small self-enclosed circle into a larger life of service, from which, even when the war ended, they never wholly receded.

This was a significant change in the general psychology. For the one thing against which humanitarians had been protesting was a far too widespread indifference on the part of those who were comfortable, to the greater duty that would be for the general good. Humanity as a whole for the first time became a proper subject for consideration in multitudes of minds, and the human race began to be seen as one great family with a common problem and a common destiny, fundamentally speaking. Many more people than ever before began living their lives in the spirit of their relation to the whole.

But the word that got us started did not die. It kept us wondering why some should be expendable and others not. Just as those men and women in their extremity analyzed their situation, so did we; and we found that there was nothing against our being self-expend-able, spending ourselves in the common cause, which has been called the cause of humanity. Nothing except our own inadequacy — and that need not hinder us from making a beginning.

In thus re-orienting ourselves, we inevitably made some discoveries. There had always been a part of us with large funds of generosity and cordial warmth, whose natural urge was devotion to the interests of others, with no thought of return. But really to enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of the new time, there must be a consent of all the elements of our nature. We had to yield ourselves to it "as swimmer to the sea" — in the words of Henry Van Dyke, and then follow through with what is expressed in the modern slogan: "Give it all you've got!" Robert Frost was probably looking at it in the same way when he wrote:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding . . .

And Lowell had the secret too when he reminded us that "the gift without the giver is bare."

That is why perfunctory "charity" is looked upon so coldly, it is to be supposed. Yet the smallest act of giving has in it some of the godlike virtue, and should not be discouraged. "Organized charity," administered as it is today with its Volunteer Placement Bureaus and its training centers for volunteer workers, gives countless individuals an opportunity to find avenues of service that benefit themselves as well as those they serve. You can call organized charity the body if you like. The longing to serve is the soul.

But this is not to say that one is doing nothing in not going out on active assignments, because duties to home and family commandeer all of one's time. The very soul of giving is really an attitude of mind, which accords to each fellow-being a just respect and a ready co-operation. And always in the background of consciousness is the panorama of humanity — a plurality of friends and brothers.

But it is not enough merely to bring humanity into our field of vision. We have to learn the philosophy of the thing. Humanity as a great family — our family — is anything but a flight of fancy. It is as much a scientific fact as gravitation or the orderly arrangement of the elements in the Mendeleef Table. Not only do all men go back in origin to the Divinity itself, but the human type is to be thought of as one class of beings in the grand procession of evolving souls. We can even think of it as being on its way to a more than human embodiment, if we dare. But for most of us it is sufficient to try here and now to realize for the race something ever more truly human.

Are we expendable? In the last analysis we are not. Nothing in the universe can be lost. For both by observation and experience, we know that we cannot really sacrifice anything, even life, finally and absolutely. In proportion to the completeness of the giving will be the rebound, in this or in another life. We may expend all the riches of our nature, our talents and our energies, in sacrifice and service, but we can no more avoid the consequences of this than we can escape so-called retribution for the negative type of action. But the riches that may ultimately be ours will be those of the spirit: peace of mind, wisdom for the conduct of life, and a natural gift for bringing happiness to our fellow-men.

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