Our Capacity To Care For and Love Others Is Complicated
I. On A Global Scale
The philosopher Adam Smith (who many know as the “Father of Capitalism”) wrote extensively of this predicament. Turns out, our brains are wired to care for and love the people in front of us, in our families, communities, and tribes. Caring for others across the country or the world, even across social strata, on the other hand, is much more difficult.
We cannot empathize with that which we don’t know or understand. And even if we do know and understand, we only have the capacity to viscerally care for a fleeting moment, and then dive straight back into our daily lives.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately who are growing fatigued with all the strife in the world. Every time they turn around something is happening—a deadly wildfire, a mass shooting, a police shooting, a devastating hurricane, you name it.
People are so exhausted from all of it that they are retreating. Worse, there is a growing donation fatigue (of time, money, and resources). Many of us would rather be ignorant than pelted with “bad news” all day long.
And look, I get it. It makes sense. But I think the solution to this predicament comes from Mother Teresa.
She said two important things (of many) related to this idea:
1. “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’”
2. “If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
We would benefit from laying off of ourselves and others and others. I want to think that our capacity to love and give is unlimited, but there are only 24 hours in a day. And we are building up the pressure so high to support that so many are getting stuck in paralysis. Instead, focus on humanity. Take an interest in one story, day after day. If you can't give money, find a way to educate others, share important ideas, start a dialogue. Take action where you can. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems today. Start with one.
II. What's Right In Front Of You
Paul Kalanathi writes of his colleague’s experience in the Operating Room with a new cancer patient:
“Standing there, waiting in the OR with a nine-hour surgery stretching out before her, Mari had a whisper of a thought: I’m so tired—please, God, let there be mets [spots of cancer that deem surgery useless]. There were. The patient was sewn back up, the procedure called off. First came relief, then a gnawing, deepening shame. Mari burst out of the OR, where, needing a confessor, she saw me, and I became one.”
This is a devastating account, but a relatable one at that. While most of us have ever been standing in an OR, unconsciously hoping that someone is given a death sentence, we all do this in small ways all the time.
Let’s say you made a decision this morning to cut someone off in traffic. You knew there wasn’t quite enough space to squeeze in, but you did it anyway. The woman in the car behind you had to slam on her brakes, which sent her into a tizzy. Because, well, she’s 2.5 months pregnant with her first child and her first six pregnancies have ended in a miscarriage.
She begins to breathe heavy, trying to calm herself down because she knows stress may cause the baby harm. But she can’t help it. Her stomach slammed into the steering wheel. What if the baby is dead? The woman goes about her day calling her OBGYN, primary care doctors, and husband every hour on the hour.
Not that you knew that would happen. Not that it’s your fault she had six miscarriages. Not that it's Mari's fault her patient had mets. Or that she was feeling particularly tired.
But these thoughts, these decisions we make, do impact others. If you cut a woman off intentionally, knowing it's the wrong thing to do, what happens is on you. You could have waited. You could have stopped to think about how your decision may impact her. You could have paused to think about how crazy and selfish you were acting.
Why didn't you?
Because you were stuck in, what David Foster Wallace calls your "default setting." That is the way you operate in day-to-day life--half-dead, mostly unconscious, and a slave to your mind. You can't help but think you are the center of all things happening in this world.
The real work in life is realizing you are not. This is just an illusion.
When these thoughts creep in, acknowledge them. Breathe, rewind, reset. It's okay to be human; it's okay to make mistakes. But the people at your office, in traffic, in the supermarket checkout line, at the gym on January 2nd—they fucking matter just as much as you do. Their livelihoods matter. Their stories matter. Their problems matter.
Take the time to get to know the people in your life. Do tiny acts of service--like holding the door open for someone or letting someone go in traffic. Find a way to connect.
Care and love the people in your world, even when you’re stressed, even when it’s hard. Dare to give so much of yourself, to step outside your selfish intent, and become a person you can be proud to be. Fight to stay conscious.