Walking into the farmer’s market, I saw a tent with posters asking for volunteers to “complete a survey and get a book.” I figured it was some kind of college student project. Curious, I dawdled a moment too long. A man stepped out of the shade, caught my eye as he walked towards me. Then I saw the other poster: “Spiritual Survey.” I was not looking for a spiritual encounter.
The man was confident but courteous. He explained that this was a spiritual survey and part of a global project to better understand the spiritual beliefs of people all over the world.
He had a list of questions, including about my faith background and belief in an afterlife. I played my “Get-Out-Of-Spiritual-Awkwardness-Free” card and told him I’m an agnostic. He asked for details.
Later, we came to this question: “Rate yourself (in regard to your humanity) on a scale of 1–10 with 10 being perfect.”
I have never rated myself as a human before, but immediately assigned myself a seven. I wondered if that was a typical response, or the reflex of a poser seven. I bet most of us believe we are better than average, which isn’t statistically possible.
I defend my better-than-average rating based on my choice to be a social worker. Although I have spent my life in jobs that are expressly about helping others, “I have not done so with a pure heart,” goes a phrase in the Confession of Sins, part of my “faith background.” I was paid to help people.
“I have not loved my neighbor as myself,” continues the confession. I flick off my helper mode as though it’s a cabbie light—when I clock out each day that light goes off. You want my help? Wait ‘til my light is back on.
Though I manage mostly to be a helpful, friendly sort of person, I don’t go much out of my way for a stranger. Still, I rated myself as a seven.
We moved on to the next question: “If you were at the gates of heaven, what would you say to try to get in?”
My reply, “I wasn’t perfect, but I did try, and I did care.”
With all respect to the paving crew on the road to hell, I still believe that efforts and intentions count for something as long as they’re sincere and not limited to couch potato philosophizing.
Yet I feel guilty. I know I am not all I could be in regard to my humanity. I wonder if the surveyors expected these answers to inspire guilt to motivate church attendance? But my guilt isn’t limited to mankind—it extends to the entire Earth. Where’s the church for that? Where’s the absolution for “what we have done and for what we have left undone”?
When this happened, I was still a social worker. I wondered if once I retired I would feel a stronger compulsion to help people—when I’m no longer paid to care, will I care more?
One year into retirement, the jury’s still out. I catch myself doing small things in secret, as if I’m that off-duty cabbie picking up hitchhikers in her own car: Is that being a good human or is it just a habit?
The survey ended, and the man told me that I gave exceptional answers and was generous with my time. He told me about their church and invited me to attend.
He did not offer a book, and I did not ask… what would a real seven do?
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