Dorothy Day, the Nurse

When World War I rolled around, Dorothy Day struggled with the same dilemma that so many pacifists struggle with: how much service is too much service? Is non-combat service of any kind in the military permissible? Perhaps only non-combat service outside of war zones or in traditionally charitable roles like medical facilities? Must pacifists be removed from the military altogether? Can they be in non-military service that directly abets the making of war? And on and on the questions go. They seem less urgent now that the draft seems like only a remote possibility politically, and in Day’s age she was aided (as she would be today) by the fact that she was a woman. Nevertheless, she felt compelled in a time of crisis to render aid to the countless people suffering directly or indirectly from the war effort but needed an ethically defensible means to do it. Her solution was to become a nurse at a municipal hospital in New York.

Never one for self-aggrandizement, her reflections on her time as a nurse admit her frustrations, her disgust, and her doubts about the work she was doing. Most importantly, she adopted the attitude that the care she was giving was not primarily an act of giving but an act of learning in which she came away the recipient of more than she had offered:

From the first, in addition to bed-making and care of the ward, we were given nursing to do, straight nursing, which delights every woman’s heart…My first patient was an old Canadian woman, ninety-four years old. Granny objected to being bathed, saying that she had bathed the day before and that at her time of life she did not see why she had to be pestered with soap and water the way she was. Argument was useless, so she began to fight with the nurses, clawing at them and screaming and sitting in the middle of her bed like a whimpering monkey.

“Let us help you,” one of the other nurses said soothingly. “Can’t you see that we want to take care of you because we love you?”

“Love be damned,” the little old lady cried, “I want my wig.” And she began to cry and whimper again…

“She has been crying for her wig since she came in,” the other nurse said. “We let her have her teeth, but she wants her wig. I don’t see why they don’t let her have it.”

…She had sympathy and understanding and realized that the little old lady needed more than soap and water and clean bed linen. She needed more than to be loved. She wanted to be respected as a person, and for that she needed to have her wishes respected. She needed such appurtenances as her wig. I remember we compromised with a cap and so pleased her.

The result was a better understanding of service, one that neatly parallels Paul’s message in Romans:

One thing I was sure of, and that was that these fellow workers and I were performing an act of worship. I felt that it was necessary for man to worship, that he was most truly himself when engaged in the act.

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