There is immense suffering in the world.
Almost all of it is unnecessary. Preventable.
Most of it is borne entirely of decisions that we, as human beings, make about other human beings. Problems of distribution, problems of belief in artificially constructed institutions (e.g. nations, money), problems of the sense of entitlement and superiority. We believe, almost as a rule, that we deserve what we have earned and that we don’t deserve what we have suffered. All rewards are just, while all punishments are unjust. And we proceed, thoughtlessly, every day.
I’m going to shift to “I” statements now, and not just because it’s recommended by most mediators. The above I feel confident in saying about the planet, or at least the United States, but the rest of this will be about a personal journey and perspective that I’m not even sure I hope is relatable to the rest of you. In some ways I do, because it’s a lonely and difficult set of issues and it would probably be reassuring to have some company, but it’s also a little like hoping someone has debilitating migraines or perhaps more incurable cancer just so you can have some counterparts on the road to doom. In other words, totally unfair. And yet, arguably, the only fiction I write is in the hopes that others will join me in this sick-bay, in the vain (both senses?) wish that ten heads or twenty are better than one or two in solving what I see as the key dilemma of modern existence in a rich country.
The suffering of others is something that is hard to look directly at. It’s like the sun in that way: omnipresent, potent, driving the life that we live, and yet impossible to witness for too long without doing major, significant damage. And yet the knowledge of this suffering is never far… you can avoid thinking about the sun all you want for days or weeks, but it never really corrodes the true knowledge and understanding that the sun is up there, beating down, changing your physical chemistry for better and worse, haunting your daily move. And you notice when it’s gone or especially bright, you notice these shifts. I notice these shifts. I am haunted every day, no matter how much I try to wear hats and sunglasses and the various layers of alleged protection.
Just to be clear what suffering we’re talking about, it’s mostly that which arises from the disparities in wealth and security that come from me living a whole life in the United States of America and others, well, not. The suffering of the poor, the starving, the war-torn, the plagued. And also, to a lesser extent, the suffering of the poorer in the US as well, the abused, the neglected, the molested, the addicted. Compassion is also there for those who suffer from betrayal and the loss of love, from crippling loneliness, from overwhelming sadness of all kinds, but I won’t be focusing on that because it seems categorically different. As does, probably, anything I’ve suffered directly. I’m talking about the kind of suffering that strikes at birth, that is in no way the result of decisions a person makes in their life, that is fundamentally unfair.
It is obviously ludicrous to think that I am in any way better than the people who suffer as described above. By definition, there is nothing they did to earn their position on the world’s ladder and nothing I did to earn mine. The decisions that sowed the seeds of my success and their failure were cemented long before any of us got here and at no point could they control or steer their fate out of this, except perhaps by blind guesses and luck. Indeed, luck is the fundamental arbiter of all of this equation. Luck separates those in countries of safety from those in danger, those in wealth from those in poverty, and all down the line.
Of course, if you want to get picky, part of it isn’t fundamentally luck. It’s the cacophony of wills, a series of decisions so vast and multifarious that it becomes sufficiently complex as to simulate luck, especially when the decisions are made entirely by other people, people with far more power and control than oneself. To make this more concrete, the fundamental decisions that impact a young mother in Iraq were made by Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, and to a very small extent by more local leaders and by the soldiers on the ground on both sides who fought over and around her territory. Perhaps the most crucial decision was made by an American soldier sitting in a cubicle in Nevada playing a video game with people’s lives. Perhaps it was made by an aid worker who chose another village over her own.
You can start to see why I call it luck. Theoretically, the woman had a couple of choices as to whether to try to stay or flee, but the meaningful distinction between outcomes therefrom are basically akin to shuffling a deck of cards and picking red or black as the next to come up. The odds of making it out safely as a refugee are indistinguishable from the odds of surviving in place, and a place like Iraq makes clear the perils of running, even if you can stomach leaving every contact, family member, and friend behind (something most people, I daresay, can’t truly contemplate). Where are you going to run? Syria? Iran? That’s where most people fled Iraq to and we can all imagine the outcomes there. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are better, and Turkey if you can get in, but the plight of such people is still one of poverty and the kind of suffering that Americans just don’t really understand or internalize on a daily basis.
Back to me, back to the abstract. It’s luck that separates me from this Iraqi woman, luck that separates me from a malarial child in Africa or any of the two-billion people in poverty worldwide. Sheer, unadulterated luck. And while I enjoy a good game of poker from time to time, I think we can all agree that luck is a lousy differentiator for who has a good life and who has a bad one. By definition, luck is arbitrary. Luck is random. Luck is entirely disconnected from desert of any kind.
So we live on a planet where I have vastly more resources, wealth, freedom, and access than 99% of the rest of the planet. Maybe it’s 97%. This is immaterial. I am vastly steeped in privilege compared to the average person, let alone those at the bottom. I have been handed a winning lottery ticket that I didn’t even pick the numbers for. The question, of course, is what do I do with it?
This is not a new awareness or a new epiphany for me. I’ve been peripherally aware of the depths and implications of this luck and my advantages since adolescence. I can remember the first time it really hit me full-force was at an Easter brunch sometime in my (I believe) early teens. We had just been to church, in the times that we still went, so maybe it was when I was 11 or 12 and still living in Oregon. Regardless, we were dressed up and looking good and went out to a slightly nicer place than we could generally afford and it was piled high, as per expectations in a holiday brunch, with all manner of delectable food and treats. The place practically glimmered with excess, lined up for the insatiable all-you-can-eat tastes of contemporary America.
I lost it. I fell into a deep, inconsolable funk. I struggled to even precisely convey to my parents what was bothering me so much. There was a part of me that didn’t want to ruin their day, their excitement, their expenditure for us to be there and celebrate. I was young enough not to realize how my mood and emotions alone were already spoiling the event. I finally mumbled out something about how much we had and everyone there had when others were going without, how truly deeply wrong it felt to display excess when people on the planet, just as worthy and smart and human as the rest of us, went without. I couldn’t eat.
I have never meaningfully left that Easter brunch.
I have merely learned to try to control how much I think about it and fill in justifications for myself to assuage the painful panging guilt of not being a starving homeless refugee. To this day, I am triggered by displays of excess of any kind, especially around food. Grocery stores are the worst. I wrestle, almost constantly, with something that plagues me with crippling depression and guilt, yet I do massive amounts to keep the understanding of this at bay. And then, when aware of it, when in the throes of excess or an article on Syria, I feel guilt about my defensive efforts to not spend every waking minute thinking about these problems as well.
It’s a survival mechanism, of course. It is very hard to go on eating and living in an excess-laden society when one is crippled by feelings of how wrong it all is and how wrong one’s participation and part in it are every single second. So the mind creates games and distractions and ways of not thinking about it so that one can shut off the self-conscious and real part of one’s awareness and focus on whatever (truly meaningless) task is at hand. It’s the old analogy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the middle of the Narnia series and one of my favorite metaphors to cite of all-time. Every night for one hour, the guy who is otherwise mild-mannered and normal has to be bound up in the silver chair while he goes through his episode of raving and raging, essentially being crazy. But the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert!) is that he’s crazy 23 hours a day and the time in the silver chair is his only moment of sanity as he rebels against his enchanted curse. The self-defense that allows me to be a functional American is the curse. The real me is the one looking at piles of croissants and donuts and weeping. This is the better me, the truer me, the me that’s aware of the real reality of life on this planet.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t come out very often. And most of the time it does, I stand torn between trying to resolve to live in this state permanently and making the very radical changes that would stem from that and trying to repair to my defenses and justifications and ride it out till the next attack of reality.
The main line of justification that has been getting me out of this dichotomy for over fifteen years goes like this: Yes, I have been extremely fortunate to be born in the United States at this point in history. Even moreso, I have been lucky to be born relatively talented, intelligent, capable, and with enough resources to do something within the context of this insanely rich and lucky society. And I have had the right bounces in my life to be influenced to be a self-conscious person who aspires to be good and not entirely selfish. As such, I am uniquely poised to influence others for the better. Were I in almost any other situation, be it poor in this society or of any class in almost any other society, I would feel deeply jealous and resentful of those in my current standing, wishing away almost anything to be able to trade places with actual me and stand on that pulpit of being a persuasive American. Granted, I’m not a millionaire or in charge of hordes of people; I lack standing at the actual absolute tippy-top, but I am close enough that such distinctions are not really meaningful. As such, if I devote my entire life, not to fleeing from this position of potential power and prestige and influence for betterment, but rather to embracing it and maximizing it for good, then it will be okay that I bought clothes and books and food in America for so long, it will be all right that I frittered away money on a trip to France or a poker tournament or new socks. It will all be okay, because the ends will justify the means.
The problem is that I think the ends justifying the means is total crap. It’s not something I accept in any other context. I don’t even believe in a physical right to violent self-defense because I’m so against it. I know, deep down, fundamentally, that this is not how morality works. Morality is about using the right means, damn the consequences. Because consequences are unknown and unpredictable. And I butt up against this reality every day that I’m navigating this overwhelming debt to the moral luck of the planet and its dominant species.
I feel driven to be a writer. I feel writing is perhaps the most influential profession that exists, especially among those not using coercive force to express persuasion. I also have been told from time to time that I’m good at it and have worked very hard to improve my talents and abilities as a writer. And as a successful, well-known, and/or well-regarded author, I feel I would have a great ability to influence others to do good as well as to do some direct good myself. Given the ability to launch this campaign from the US and not from, say, Botswana, I must not squander this opportunity to do this.
But this path is full of pitfalls, of unknown outcomes that an abridging of proper means is hard to justify for. On face, there is no certainty that I will ever “make it” as a writer, that my work will ever be read by more than a handful of friends and a very few strangers. In fact, statistically, there is near-certainty of the opposite, that I will fail and wind up with a drawer full of manuscripts that go largely unknown. And even if I make it in a way that far outstrips the odds, the chances of being read by more than a small following of people is fairly minimal as well. We have to get to several standard deviations out before there’s a real chance of having the kind of voice that moves mountains in this society. And then, say that I have that platform. There’s then the inscrutable problem of how writing even influences people in general. Certainly any given book thoughtfully read will push the reader a little bit. But how much? Once in a while, a book can start a revolution or a firestorm or change an industry or a whole society. But even among popular books, only a fraction get even close to this. The realistic outcome, in well over 99% of cases, of all my moral sacrifice and compromise, is next to nothing. At best, it’s a lottery ticket for a very moderate degree of influence over a very moderate number of people. And that’s at the almost very best.
For many years after college, I tried to hedge against these absurdly long odds and depressing likelihoods of failure by working more directly with people suffering in my neighborhood. I worked with emotionally disturbed adolescent victims of abuse and neglect, unquestionably those who have suffered the most in our own society, those who can probably be deemed as much in need as most in poorer countries from the sheer depth of their individual suffering at such a young age. And when that almost killed me (literally), I shifted to doing administrative work for an agency that helped the nearly-as-needy poor and homeless living in the shadow of the successful excesses of San Francisco. I watched their ranks swell in 2008 and documented the changes, appealing to those with more to give more and help us out.
But all the while, I questioned whether even this was good work in a way. Sure, it was better than making widgets or suing people, but was it really helping the people in the most need? And wasn’t failing to help the people in the most need just a way of shuffling around excuses and justifications and comfort anyway?
Well if I could feel that way working for a non-profit that fed hungry people every day, you can imagine the qualms that come up when working for a university debate team. Don’t get me wrong – I’m passionate about debate and its ability to lift people up and improve people and I’ve always felt that being persuasive is part of what gives me the possibility to do good in the first place. And heck, as one of my students notably discussed in her TED Talk at Rutgers’ TEDxRutgers event, I even have the opportunity to lead by example between my discussion of why I refrain from meat and alcohol and drugs and my barbed critiques of America’s de facto oppression of the rest of the world. But this is way small potatoes compared to helping those who are suffering the most, or even those who are suffering way less than the most. And maybe I needed to just excel at something for a while in the wake of the rubble that my life was rendered in 2010, but maybe that was also the potential jumping-off-point for what I really should’ve been doing all along. Namely, giving it all away and becoming a relief worker, an aid worker, an ascetic, a refugee from society, or even a hermit.
Which brings us to the next problem of being a person with the crippling awareness of how much better one has it than everyone else: what is to be done? What is the best way to do the most good? Abiding by the overriding principle of first doing no harm seems to inspire the life of a wandering monk, or a hermetic self-sufficient absentee. I wrestle with the temptation every week to donate every cent I’ve accumulated and go live in the woods on roots, berries, and my wits. Of course, I wouldn’t live very long, which brings up the question of whether survivalist skills are the most important things to actually be learning, but even then, life is both unappealing and likely to be short. I recently read The Other, a meditation of sorts on what someone confronted with this perspective and increasingly alienated from society chooses to do, which is go and live in the woods. He is ironically and self-defeatingly reliant on a friend bringing him supplies for his cave dwelling from what he dubs “Hamburger World” and as soon as his friend is unable to get through one winter, he dies. Which itself, frankly, has kind of an appeal.
There comes a point when wrestling with moral questions and the need to continue consuming food and slave-labor clothing and a first-world lifestyle becomes so debilitating and induces such self-loathing, that offing oneself starts to feel like a potential service to do for the world. One less mouth to feed, one less person to displace, one less occupier of the richest land and opportunities such that others may rise to a chance at something vaguely resembling equality. Of course it’s the easy way out, and not actually all that marginally helpful. And then there’s the question of the damage one does to friends, family, compatriots, people who had hoped to enjoy one’s company and camaraderie for however long one otherwise would dodge traffic accidents and cancer. No doubt that suicide does a net harm in itself that is hard to justify as a means-based person, no matter how much psychological relief may feel like the byproduct.
So then what? Becoming a missionary without the church, a monk without the habit? It seems obviously right in some way, were it not for the nagging feeling that going to the slums, the refugee camps, the hardscrabble drought and doing manual labor is precisely not what I am suited to do. I have no special penchant for using my hands, no particular gift for moving bags of grain or checking someone’s pulse. Is it not ignorant and even slightly evil to walk away from one’s gifts and talents and devote oneself to something at which one is vaguely below-average? Or is this just an excuse, another justification, and is there actually something noble and right about walking away from opportunities at success to accept a role as a menial bystander, a day laborer in the journey of human equality, to willingly forsake the benefits one is offered and choose to be as close to the bottom 1% as one can muster?
What holds me back? Why don’t I just do this already?
There is fear, there is inertia, there is laziness, there is the paralyzing anticipation of regret. Even though I can anticipate how alive and right I would feel in so many ways, I would also miss video games and poker and baseball and friends and family. Especially those last two, sticking in one’s throat, for at a certain point the only difference between shedding everything to move to Congo to live in poverty and suicide is the esoteric knowledge of loved ones that I’m not actually dead, yet, though I am putting myself in a vastly more dangerous position. And while I’ve always been able to stave off my own suicidal instincts with the knowledge that disappearing and starting over at something is marginally better, the difference is really pretty marginal. As someone with so many close friends and the hope of ongoing contact and connection, the idea of throwing it all overboard ranges between disheartening and insulting to those loved ones.
And yet, how much do I see them anyway? One could still compromise and make a provision for a once-a-year return to the land of milk and madness. Still hedge and promise to return and share bounty and stories of the desperation one tried to help stave off for others. There is a way to do this that is not sheer abandonment of all one grew up with and cared about at one time. It could be done. If only I had the conviction that it was certifiably the rightest thing to do.
Because when one is on the brink of sacrifice, one wants to be absolutely sure that one is getting the maximum marginal benefit for the world out of such sweeping sacrifice. And this raises one of the many large problems that people are facing around the thoughtful world today – how does one do the most good for those who are suffering so deeply? Just yesterday, I heard a “This American Life” episode entitled, fittingly, “I Was Just Trying to Help”. You should go listen to it now, or after finishing this, especially the segment on relief workers and aid programs and whether giving the poor money directly or a cow is better and how that can be measured. It took me straight back, not only to my non-profit work in San Francisco and my battle with so many program managers to let data be part of, if not the whole story of, the good we were trying to do for people, but also to the question asked by this entire post. How do we even help?
So many efforts at helping seem transparently like continuations of imperialism in different forms. It is just like the overly guilty white person to feel they can be a messianic figure to poor, darker people in far-flung nations by simply coming and offering support, be it menial or, perhaps worse, institutional. How can one’s sincere offerings of selfless giving not be laden in the horrific trappings of Kipling’s “burden” and that same resurgent sense of entitlement and superiority? And the challenge is to not just give up on the enterprise and smugly accept a better standard of living and not ask these questions because there’s difficulties in navigating classism, racism, imperialism. The challenge is to confront those issues head-on and try in the humblest way possible anyway. But it’s clear that so many “development” efforts are just fronts for American capitalism and exploitation. We even have the average person in the US starting to feel that sweatshop culture is good because it eventually raises the standard of living in the long sweeping arc of time for people whose mothers and fathers were suffocated in the factories or burnt up on the assembly line. The idea that everyone, every country and society, needs to do it the dumb way in a grand race to get to a standard of living sustained by burning up the earth, burning up the land, burning up people. It’s almost as sickening as just being in the US on any given Tuesday and looking at grocery stores’ wares or the miles of pointless temporary goods we equate with happiness.
So how to be a good man in a bad state? When that state is humanity or the planet at large? How does one do unequivocal good, having the courage to forsake all that is comfortable and familiar and falsely reassuring? And how, if I struggle so much with this and still can’t bring myself to even donate more than a pittance to charity and relief efforts, let alone commit my whole self to doing so, could I possibly expect to inspire anyone else to make any sacrifice to be any better? How crappy am I to be so torn up by guilt and awareness of all of this suffering and still do essentially absolutely nothing to help?! I would hate myself so much if I were any other person in the predominantly suffering world. Almost as much as I hate myself now.
So I’m putting this here, as a reminder to myself to look at the sun. That I have to do something about this, lots of somethings, that the time of excuses and justifications has got to be on the wane. That despite being robbed blind by my ex-wife, I can still afford to offer those who actually have nothing something. That despite my aspirations for a comfortable life and recovery, life is not supposed to be comfortable and no one ever fully recovers from anything they endure. That I can’t just wash away or brush aside the urgency of any given second of life. That tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is merely the grave. And that while I belief in tomorrows after the grave, that does little to help the people present now. That someday I believe I will have to relive this life in its entirety, on slow-motion mostly, having to answer for each decision and awareness and shortcoming and that it will be even more clear then than it is now how much I am failing every day to be a good person. That life is a gift that is borrowed, not an entitlement that is earned. That I am not paying my debts to the planet, to the species, to the overseers. That I can work my whole life and still fall short of the debt, but that’s no reason to not start working all the same.
I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have any idea how to confront these problems without being overwhelmed. The biggest answer to why I haven’t done enough is probably that every time I do, I wind up collapsed in a corner in the fetal position, sobbing, unable to confront the din of suffering and helplessness that I feel. But this is no excuse. This should be worked through, fought through, reasoned through to get to a point where life feels livable even in the light of the suffering that abounds. Not through self-justification, but through the real effort to tackle things and improve them. I have no earthly idea what to do. I am terrified as I look into this abyss and every part of me that leans toward self-preservation is telling me to withdraw. But I cannot live with myself this way. I have to do something and I have to know it is moving things in the right direction.
I am, perhaps optimistically, creating this post title as a new category of posts here. That’s right folks, it’s going to be Birthday Party Central at StoreyTelling. I am going to keep confronting this and trying to figure out what to do. Because this nagging feeling of the last twenty years is there for good reason. And it’s not going anywhere until I try harder, much much harder, to fix it. I pray for the strength to follow through.