This weekend in D.C. — where I actually got to meet some of my fellow TASers in the flesh, which was awesome — I finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s portrait of the doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer. I don’t suppose there’s a more astonishing person in the world than Farmer, and there can’t be many (any?) who have saved and improved as many lives. And he has spent much of his life among the most profoundly poor and miserable people in the world, especially in Haiti, where the organization he founded, Partners in Health, did its first work and where it still maintains its flagship project, the hospital called Zanmi Lasante.
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.
Paul Farmer’s politics, in most senses of the term, are anything but conservative; but his devotion to the long defeat strikes me as a model of what a healthy conservatism ought to be, in every sphere of life. The failure to hold this sober, realistic, but curiously sustaining view of things has brought many well-formed and well-meaning plans to a dark end.
Paul Farmer and the people he has trained have seen children die, communities fail, exciting initiatives crumble in the dust; but they’re still at work. They’re not leaving the side of the poor. God bless them all.
UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve discovered that there’s a Wikipedia entry on the phrase the long defeat, which refers both to Tolkien and to Paul Farmer. Wikipedia is amazing sometimes.
MORE IMPORTANT UPDATE: Read Russell Arben Fox on the implications of Farmer’s work. It’s important.