Probing a life given over to doing good

From the standpoint of Adam Smith -- and perhaps Ivan Boesky -- Robert Coles grew up in a dysfunctional home.

His mother rolled bandages for the Red Cross, served meals in a soup kitchen, sewed clothes for poor children and visited hospital patients. She loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent checks to the Catholic Worker, read to the blind and occasionally irritated her son, Robert, with her "pietistic side."


His engineer father, a "skeptical scientist," inclined more toward Republicans Wendell Willkie and Robert Taft. The elder Coles worried that New Deal legislation might "weaken the spirit" of the poor and turn them into "a class of dependents."

Yet Dr. Coles' father, after retiring in his mid-60s, also worked as an unpaid volunteer with poor elderly men and women in Boston, keeping it up until his mid-80s. He took on battles for people confined to nursing homes and hospitals, and confronted bureaucrats who made already difficult lives worse.


No one in the Coles family, it seems, thought much about golf or tennis. No one spent much time arguing about baseball teams.

What his parents did clash over, Harvard's much-beloved child psychiatrist recalls at age 63, was how -- or even whether -- one should describe such do-goodism. Dr. Coles' mother, an outgoing sort, used blunt moral notions such as "idealism" and "goodness of heart." His father, a laconic, practical type, didn't like to be psychoanalyzed by his son, or pressed by his wife on his inner motives.

"Your mother was trying to figure out why I do what I do," his father once replied when Dr. Coles queried him about an attempt by his wife to grasp his motivations. "I told her not to bother! I told her I like talking to the people I meet!"

Dr. Coles eventually extracted enough information from his father to understand the elder Coles' "unspoken faith" in service to others. And he went on to emulate his parents' moralism.

As one of America's most admired teachers and authors, he has published more than 50 books and 1,000 articles, specializing in movingly written accounts of the thinking of children, such as the five-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Children of Crisis."

He has tutored indigent schoolchildren, lived and worked in a Catholic Worker hospitality house, participated in the civil rights movement, and shepherded voices from Nicaragua, New Mexico, Israel, Alaska and many other places to a worldwide audience.

Nonetheless, years later, he still finds himself wondering about the ambiguities of idealism. In "The Call of Service," an open-heart exploration of the circuitry that makes altruism possible, he attempts to pierce the mystery.

He examines the satisfactions and costs of service to others, the "trials and opportunities."


Like several of Dr. Coles' books, "The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism" revisits field work, memories and conversations familiar to his longtime readers.

We return to his formative years as a young doctor in Mississippi and Louisiana; his part-time public school teaching in inner-city Cambridge, Mass.; his Harvard class on "The Literature of Social Reflection;" his conversations with enduring mentors such as psychiatrists Anna Freud and Erik Erikson, Catholic social worker and journalist Dorothy Day, and poet and doctor William Carlos Williams.

Here, however, our pre-eminent investigator of subjective moral notions probes for symptoms of the magic that overrides selfishness, turning his theme over many times so he can, from every angle, mull each part in the light.

Organizing his material into chapters that mix oral history and meditation, Dr. Coles distinguishes different kinds of service, such as social and political struggle, community work, personal gestures and encounters, charity, religiously sanctioned action, government-sanc- tioned action and service to country.

He scrutinizes its satisfactions -- among them, personal affirmation and fulfillment of moral purpose. He details its hazards, ranging from weariness, resignation and cynicism to harsher pitfalls such as arrogance, anger, bitterness, despair and "burnout." He ponders the differences between older and younger idealists, the nature of mentoring, the nexus between doing and learning.

As always, Dr. Coles teaches through example. He describes "The Call of Service" as a companion to "The Call of Stories" (1990), his study of how stories nourish the moral imagination, because they "convey two summonses my mother and father heard and repeatedly took very seriously. . . . They knew that stories are a means of glimpsing and comprehending the world; they knew that service is a means of putting to use what has been learned."


As always in Dr. Coles' books, hard-to-shake phrases and incidents turn up frequently enough to remind us of his sharp eye and ear for epiphany.

Brushing off the question of "burnout," a committed Harvard student cheers Dr. Coles.

"My whole life before I started the work," he tells Dr. Coles, "was a long stretch of burnout."

Several of Dr. Coles' people struggle to understand their own motivations for community service. Students accuse each other or themselves of doing it for their curriculum vita or "brag sheet." Older idealists act faintly embarrassed, often presenting their kindness as a gift to themselves. Late in the book, a lawyer in her late 20s starts to chide herself for sounding missionary about her public-interest work, apologizes, then reverses field again, realizing that her apology itself symbolizes a selfish culture ashamed of altruism.

At the same time, Dr. Coles shows us that humility of spirit, resistance to the sin of pride, is essential for those who do good. Recalling George Eliot's character Dorothea Brooke in "Middlemarch," whose idealism breaks the bounds of common sense, Dr. Coles notes that "Eliot warns us, by implication, that a high-minded devotion to the call of service can turn into a nightmare of sorts."

Weaving together his illustrations, Dr. Coles writes in a conversational style that never descends to the chatty, maintaining proper dignity for his topic. He knows when to let his guests talk on and elaborate, and when to return to the microphone, bridging their tales with his own notion of where their memories and concerns lead.


Why do they do it? The motivations -- and answers -- are many. But Dr. Coles received his pithiest answer decades ago when a young civil rights volunteer named Dion Diamond told him: "The satisfaction, man."

It is a message as direct and bracing as Dr. Coles' own candor in tracing his career, acknowledging his occasional flashes of ego, the moments when he didn't like the supposed humanist in the mirror.

In a chapter titled "What They Mean to Us," Dr. Coles recalls wrapping up an interview with his heroine, Dorothy Day. He informed her that he was just about finished with his task of reporting on her and the Catholic Worker movement, having interviewed her co-workers, academic experts and so on.

"I'm not sure you're as close to the end of this as you hope," she said. Day pointed out that he still hadn't spoken to the "most important people" in her life: her "guests," by which she meant the indigents who came to her Lower East Side soup kitchen. Dr. Coles felt reprimanded.

"I still remember," he writes, "the words that crossed my mind: 'Many of them are drunk when they arrive and still drunk when they leave -- Bowery bums.' So much for one researcher's methodology: an eager interest in intellectuals, in writers and theologians, in the 'interesting' array of volunteers who came to give their time and energy; in the ideas and actions and hopes and disappointments of a well-known essayist and moralist who had a complex relationship to a host of eminently recognizable people, from Eugene O'Neill and Mike Gold to W. H. Auden and Hannah Arendt. But, alas, I had no apparent desire to 'expand the sample,' as they say in the social sciences, by talking to the folks she sat with every noon after preparing and serving them food and asking them to pray with her, pray 'for' her."



Title: "The Call of Service"

Author: Robert Coles

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 306 pages, $22.95