Notes: Numb to the tragedies of this world

Children often have an incredibly pure perspective of the world. In this short letter from Jarkko Laine's Curious & Creative, I was reminded just how easily we can become numb to reality.

As I sat down to have have breakfast with my sons, Oiva, the older of the two, asked me for a song in place of saying grace. I agreed, and without thinking about it that much, started to improvise: "We are thankful that we have food. Not everyone has food, but we do."

As I was singing, I noticed Oiva's face change: he was trying to hide his tears. I stopped singing and quickly asked him what was wrong. With tears in his eyes, forcing a smile on his face (but failing to do so), he said: "Dad, that song is a little strange."

Oiva is four. He still cares.

For him, hearing that someone doesn't have food is not something to be thankful for.

At that moment I was very happy for the small monthly donation we make to charity as I could use it to explain to my son that there are ways we can help those people who don't have the goods we do.

But once again, his natural compassion had revealed to me something ugly about myself: I have become used to the tragedies in this world.

Accepting Responsibility

You're sitting at a cafe in one of two armchairs; a coffee table separates you and the stranger in the adjoining seat. A few minutes pass and the stranger leaves, forgetting to take his empty cup from the table.

After some time, another stranger sits down. He's holding several books and a hot cup of coffee. The empty cup on the table is in his way, but with no knowledge of who the cup belongs to, he doesn't want to touch it; he probably assumes it's yours.

Whose responsibility is the empty cup?

It's easy to ignore responsibility when we can pass it off to someone else (especially if that person isn't around), but if we can alleviate suffering or provide assistance -- no matter how little -- we automatically inherit the responsibility to do so.

(This applies even if the suffering is directed at the same person who failed to be responsible: if we see a wallet or purse left behind, we feel responsibile to provide assistance by turning it in.)

The motivation to act comes easily when we witness suffering firsthand: the innate human elements of empathy and compassion allow us to sense when we are, without doubt, responsible to act.

But when things are a little less clear -- when our lack of responsibility can go unnoticed -- it's easy to conclude that "it's not my problem" and move on. This can happen even if we are able to solve the problem or be part of the solution.

We ignore dirty dishes in the sink, trash on the sidewalk, and the shy person at the party. We convince ourselves that we deserve to suffer, that we're incapable of changing, or that we're just not lucky. We push aside thoughts of poverty in India, inequality in Africa, or starvation the world over because “it’s too big; someone else will fix it; it’s not my problem.”

Except it is our problem, because we can do something to change it.

Voting for Poverty

Look into her eyes. Look at the expression her mouth makes, the red marks left by tears on her cheeks, the grit underneath her nails. Now tell me that cup of coffee I was drinking is somehow more important.

Every time you buy something you don't need or spend time in the pursuit of a selfish goal, you're placing a vote that says you'd rather see people suffer than sacrifice your own wants and desires.

You can push the starving children out of your head and tell yourself that you'd do more if you could. You can remind yourself that you're a good person and that you have your own problems to deal with.

But none of that changes the fact that there are 2 billion people living on the same planet as you, sharing the same resources, breathing the same air, and yet surviving on a standard of living far below what you would consider humane.

None of that changes the fact that there are 17,000 children dying every single day from preventable causes.

There are no subtle exceptions. The coffee I'm drinking right now is a vote for poverty because I wasted $2 to satisfy my craving for caffeine instead of using that money to feed a hungry family for an entire week. Continue reading

Love is Enough

Love is Enough, seen in a remote Himalayan village in Nepal

"Who's that Buzz guy?"

"Buzz Aldrin? He was one of the first people to walk on the moon."

She was surrounded by space geeks, asking questions about space history that must have seemed trivial and obvious to everyone around her. But she wasn't judged. She wasn't laughed at, criticized, or looked down upon. Instead, her curiosity was enthusiastically embraced and nurtured.

Five people stood around the kitchen and took turns answering question after question. Five people who only a few days earlier were total strangers. This, I realized, is why love and passion are so important to humanity.

Their voices began to blur and their outlines became fuzzy as I began daydreaming of a world where every person was just as compassionate and caring. A world where strangers would regularly come together to share knowledge and exchange ideas. A world where what mattered wasn't power or prestige, but pure, simple, love.

But let me back up a little and explain how this group of strangers, including myself, came to be living together under the same roof. Continue reading