Have you ever been criticized for not having heard about a geopolitical crisis? Scorned, because you weren’t following the international news closely enough at the time of said crisis? Treated as though you were a wasted human life, because really, what responsible global citizen didn’t hear about the political unrest in 2009 in <insert country name here>?
Have you ever been similarly chided for not showing enough interest in the geopolitical happenings of the day? It’s a small heart indeed that can’t bleed for the poor people of <insert name of oppressed people here>. Honestly, how can you even think about your small problems when these poor people on the other side of the planet are dying of hunger/sickness/warfare/etc?
Excuse me, but I do care. I have empathy for any being who suffers. But this sort of global-mindedness is not for everyone. I’d argue it’s not for most.
The limits of information
At the root of this issue is Information. Riding the wave of the Information Age as we are, we have never been better informed. News never stops trickling in from all corners of the Earth. News outlets aren’t even necessary: the peoples of the world are increasingly sharing all the details of their lives on social media. With smartphones, everyone is walking around with a camera in their pockets; we’re taking pictures and video of everything and sending it right up to the internet for the world to see. It was a much less connected world even 10 years ago. Imagine the world 10 years from now.
So we have all this Information. Suddenly I’m a global citizen with global responsibilities. The poor suffering people of <insert country name here>… that’s on my head by virtue of knowing about it?
I don’t mean to be argumentative, but no.
I may have all this Information that I didn’t have before, but that doesn’t necessarily (or often) correlate with an increase in power. I’ve never been to <insert country name here>. I know nothing more than the bullet points that have trickled down to me. Moreover, the resources at my disposal are minimal. I’m a humble man of humble means. What exactly am I, with my Information, expected to do, thousands of miles removed from <insert atrocity here>?
We have sanctified our Information beyond all rationality. We have equated it, unequivocally, with power. Knowledge is not power; this is a foolish generalization. I’d rephrase that oft-used statement thus: some knowledge can be power. It depends on the Information, and it depends on the person who possesses it.
The limits of trust
I’m not an important person. My skills, while not inconsiderable, are not exactly applicable to <insert overwhelming suffering here>. All I have is this Information, but what good is it except to remind me that for many people life is a nightmare? I know life is a nightmare. There are suffering people in my own backyard. Now I know there are suffering people in <insert country name here>. I empathize, as I empathize with anyone.
I won’t shoulder the suffering of millions of people like a pack mule, I won’t feel guilty for declining to do so, and that does not make me apathetic. I don’t have the solution; the solution did not come bundled with the Information. And honestly, I can’t think this big. You’re asking me to consider humanity on a scale that I can’t begin to comprehend. It overwhelms me completely.
But that’s okay, you say: I’m an expert on <insert atrocity here>. Whatever humble resources you can spare, give them to me and I’ll do the rest. My organization, we’ve done our research and we’re going to fix this!
With all due respect to you and your out-turned hand, I don’t know you, and that’s in addition to not fully understanding all the ins-and-outs of <insert human-made catastrophe here>. With all this lack-of-complete-information sucking the very air out of the room, you want my (relative) blind faith?
You don’t have it.
The limits of capability
Surely each and every one of us has the potential to affect all sorts of change. If I leave the life I’m living right now and start a completely different life, I might be able to help <insert name of oppressed people here>. I could dedicate all my mental energy toward truly understanding this completely foreign country and culture. I could make the aim of my life the accumulation of wealth and power. I could start an NGO, or work for the State Department, or become a U.S. Congressman. Then I could affect the lives of many.
But I don’t want to. That’s not who I am.
So I can’t tackle the geopolitical crises of the day. Not head-on. That requires power I don’t have. Instead, I’m working at a Buddhist center. I do my part to keep the center running. The center teaches the Dharma. The Dharma helps people. Ergo, I help people. This is the small power I have, but as a small person, this is what I’m capable of. And here’s the thing: it all adds up. All these small doings come together into something substantial. I don’t know if it will inevitably help <insert name of oppressed people here> but it’s all that I can do at this time in my life.
Some people can think big; I don’t want to discourage big thinking. But most of the big-thinking chatter just sounds lazy—a poor excuse to avoid doing anything practical. It’s far easier to sit around thinking big ideas and accomplishing nothing than it is to volunteer one day a month at a homeless shelter.
Don’t commiserate over <insert name of atrocity 8000 miles away>. Merely possessing that Information doesn’t make you a good person. Merely possessing that Information doesn’t automatically affect any sort of change. Most of us are small people with little to no power. Small people need to do what they’re capable of: thinking small. In other words, thinking local. Help your neighbors. Help your community.
If you can do that, then try to build on it and think a little bigger.