Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.

A Letter to My Sons: On Love and Hate

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

This is my first Valentine’s Day away from you. The second away from Mommy – the first time was way back in 1998. I was living in Ghana at the time, and your mother sent me a Valentine’s Day package from home. The package wasn’t delivered to my apartment, so I had to pick it up at the central post office. People receiving packages had to open them for inspection in front of a postal worker. There was a lineup of people behind me, peeking over my shoulder to see what I got. I opened the box and showed the postal worker a CD, a letter, and a pair of red boxer shorts with little red and white hearts on it.

However embarrassing that situation was at the time (but everyone smiled), I knew I was a lucky man, and I am even luckier today. Prior to meeting your Mommy, Valentine’s Day, to put it simply, sucked. I never had a girlfriend on that day (reassuringly, most of my guy friends didn’t either), and any potential for having a girlfriend on or around that day was always promptly extinguished. I can freely provide you details in about 5 years.
All you need.
I am lucky because I have love from the two of you and Mommy that defines me, that strengthens me, supports me, gets me out of bed and brings me comfort even though I’m 9511 km away from you (more or less). It makes Valentine’s Day just another day as I sit here alone in my hotel room, happy.

There’s a saying that goes, “So much of what we know of love we learn at home.” I learned a lot from your grandmother and, in a very different way, from your Uncle John, and continue to learn from the two of you and Mommy. As I left you on Saturday, your emotions were bare, your silence painful, and your tears seared right through my heart. My trips away from you are much shorter than they were ten years ago, but somehow the goodbyes are sadder. I can only attribute that to a growing love.

Sitting here in my hotel room in Amman, it’s hard for me not to think of this day without remembering the struggles that so many people here in the Middle East and North Africa have faced over the past year. You know of the sweeping changes that took pace in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya. But one year ago today, February 14, protests began in the streets of Bahrain, where my friend Abdulhadi was jailed and sentenced to life in prison. He recently wrote a letter from jail talking about his situation. He is a strong man, someone who fights hard for the rights of others and has paid a high price for this. But he is loved, and that love manifests itself in the support that thousands of people from around the world have shown in pushing for his release, and the release of other prisoners.

Bahrain is not the only place where innocent people are being hurt because they are standing up for their rights. The situation in Syria is getting worse every day, with the president unwilling to give up power as his forces kill dozens of civilians every day. Tonight I spoke to my friend Amouri who lives in Syria and he says that all six of the UN schools that operate in the city of Homs have been closed now for three weeks because of the violence in the streets. It’s one thing for you to have a snow day and not go to school. Can you imagine not attending school because people are being killed in the streets?

If you think this makes no sense, you are right. I want you to always keep in mind that this is not right. Hatred will never be right. You might be confused right now about this kind of stupid behaviour, and as you get older, I’m sorry to say you might find out even stupider and more hurtful things that people do. If you’re like me, this will anger you. What I’ve learned over time is that anger is often unavoidable, but needs to be transformed. Without changing that anger, you won’t change anything. Your anger at other people’s stupidity needs to be channeled into passion and love that is tempered by reason, into a fierce enthusiasm to stop those who do wrong to others. Be a Superman, be a Batman – even SpongeBob stands up for what’s right. I want you to be yourself and to share, as much as you possibly can, what you know of love and learned from home. The world needs it.

Je t’aime Sam, je t’aime Alexandre.


A Letter to My Wife: Conflicting Thoughts

Dear Carolyn,

I left the hotel yesterday morning and made my way through the streets of Jerusalem. Within a few hundred metres of the hotel, I saw a pretty young woman with long, flowing blonde hair standing by the side of the road. Her right hand rested comfortably on the rifle slung over her shoulder. If Israel and Palestine were people on Facebook, their relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” The analogy is an understatement, but sufficiently nondescript to hold a grain of truth.

As I write these words, Cat Stevens is singing “I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do, and it’s breaking my heart in two.” This past week, traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza and from Ramallah to Jenin, I’ve been trying to come to grips with what this means.

I spent part of the day yesterday in Ramallah visiting schools and attending a student-led conference on human rights. The first performance was of a young group of students singing and dancing in a remarkably well choreographed number. They were singing about their rights – to be healthy, to have a good education, to be loved. The two smallest girls with butterfly wings stole the show upon entering midway through the song, arms entwined and smiling. We left the building and were greeted by a likeness of Che Guevara at the bottom of the hill.

The world I have seen this week is riddled with conflicting messages of peace and violence, love and war, tolerance and fear. Amidst all the beauty and filth, poverty and wealth, walls and fences are everywhere. There are so many of them in Israel that I’m tempted to come here and start a wall-making business, I’d be rich in no time. Walls keep people in as much as they keep others out.

The conflicting images convey unequal amounts of hope and despair. The living conditions in Gaza are among the most inhumane I have seen. The schools I visited were a welcome refuge from the rest of the landscape. If I were a child in Gaza, I would never want to grow up and leave the school. To graduate is to be flung into a life of hopelessness.

As I spoke to schoolchildren in both Gaza and the West Bank, trying to find out what they knew about human rights, their answers were strikingly different from what our boys would answer. Some responses transcend borders: I have the right to an education, I have the right to my opinion, I have the right to be heard, I have the right to a clean environment, I have the right to feel safe. But almost all of them added “I have the right to freedom” – this coming from children as young as our boys.

I know we try as hard as possible to make our children’s lives as caring and as loving as we can. The parents of those children in Gaza and the West Bank are no different from us. But they are tragic victims of circumstance, acrimonious history, and powerful men oblivious to the well-being of those parents and their children. They live in a place where they are powerless to move and have little hope for a bright future for their children.

The overwhelming message from the parents, teachers, and students has been one of peace. As UNRWA’s tagline states, Peace starts here. When I think of their lives, my emotions are as equally conflicted as the images I have seen: frustration, despair, anger; hope, determination, solidarity. To impress the gravity of these emotions and the significance of this situation to our children weighs heavily on my heart. When they were younger, it was easy to shield them from the injustices I witnessed. It was easy to switch off that part of my life as I saw you waiting for me at the airport and you all rushed to hug me after a trip. As our children mature, I want us to make the right choices that will passionately and critically educate them about their world. To not only appreciate the privileged lives they have, but to be sensitive and caring to those less fortunate. To not only have fun and enjoy the quality of life they deserve, but to help others reach that same level of human dignity we often take for granted. It means they may be shocked at times, they will be upset, they will ask the most basic of questions such as “Why are so many people living in poverty?” and we may struggle to answer. But we cannot shelter them forever. More than anything I want both our boys to lead the most wonderful of lives, but they cannot do so in ignorance of the world around them. In whichever way they choose to make a change in this world, I’m thankful to have you by my side as they grow.

Love always, p