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: Three Questions

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

Last week I spoke to some university students about poverty. Only a few students showed up, but when I think back to my days at university, I probably wouldn’t have gone to any talk about poverty. As I struggled to think of what to say to them, I thought back to a book Mommy read to you a couple of years ago: The Three Questions. In the book, a young boy goes on a journey to find answers to three questions. He finds the answers he needs by meeting friends along his journey.

These are the questions the boy asks:
Do good for the person next to you, now. That’s it.
  1. When is the best time to do things?
  2.  Who is the most important one?
  3.  What is the right thing to do?


As he nears his journey’s end, one of his friends offers these answers: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.  For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”

I never thought of these three questions before reading this book – at least not the way the boy asked them. By the time I finished university, the question I asked myself – which I never really shared with anyone – was “Is this all there is?” And by “this” I basically meant the life I was leading and the purpose I had for being on this earth. The answer was simple enough: “No.” But that kind of answer didn’t tell me what I should be doing.

I found some answers to what I should be doing by seeing more of the world. As I began to travel I realized that there was so much of the world that lived a harder life than mine. Before traveling, I’d seen images of poor people on TV, but that was the extent of the poverty I faced. The more I learned about the world, the more I realized not everyone went to school, not everyone lived in a nice house, not everyone had enough food to eat, not everyone had enough clean water to drink, not everyone was healthy, not everyone felt safe and secure.

The more I saw of the world, the more I hurt. The more I thought of that question – Is this all there is? – the more I felt I should do something.  Like the boy in the story, I learned that the time to do things was right now. Not later, not when I felt like it, not when the world would get better because it wasn’t. There was no waiting, it was just now. As for the answer to the boy’s second question: “the most important person is always the one you are with.” The one next to you. Nowadays many people will tell you that the world is a lot smaller. Our phones, computers, airplanes, and other technology have brought many of us closer together. If this is the case, then isn’t it true that the person “next to you” can be anyone in the world? The answer to the third question is to “do good for the one who is standing at your side.” In an increasingly smaller world, this means you can do good for anyone, anywhere.

But there comes a point when you have to make choices. I decided long ago to try to help people in many places, and that’s what still takes me away from you. Before leaving a few days ago, you asked again, “Why do you have to leave?” Leaving you is hard for me, harder than you can imagine. But as much as my love for you compels me to stay home and be with you all the time, the same three questions the young boy asks himself are always on my mind. The answers to the boy’s questions also compel me to “do good,” or at least try to help others. Whether you “do good” by teaching kids in school like Mommy, or by becoming a Lego Master or a rock star/dog babysitter like you want to be one day, you end up making others happy, and you’ll make a difference in this world.

Je t’aime Alexandre, Je t’aime Sam.

A Letter to My Sons, Part 2: Uncivil War

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’ve been in Sri Lanka for almost a day now, and have managed to stay awake despite having only a few hours sleep last night. The hotel I’m staying at is called the Grand Oriental Hotel, and like most hotels I’ve been to, the pictures on the website make the place look better than it actually is. There’s an expression that goes, “Nothing to write home about,” and as a result I will not describe my club sandwich to you. There’s a nice view of the port from the restaurant, but I can’t show you a picture of what it looks like because there’s a sign saying “NO PICTURES NO VIDEO.” I looked more closely at the port and there are navy ships with the occasional soldier walking around with a rifle slung over his shoulder. I guess they don’t want people taking pictures of their war toys.

Speaking of war, this hotel was designed to be an army barracks for British soldiers back in 1837; that’s a place where soldiers live. My room is probably where at least a dozen soldiers slept every night in cramped, hot conditions. Looking at it that way, I shouldn’t complain. If you’re wondering why the British had soldiers in Sri Lanka to begin with, that’ll have to be a story for another time. Remind me to talk to you about colonialism and slavery one day.

Sri Lanka is an island country, called Ceylon when I was a baby, and it is only recently coming out of a long, drawn-out war. Back when I was a teenager, some people living in the northern part of the island formed a group called the Tamil Tigers. They were a group that wanted to have an independent state that was separate from the rest of the country. The Tigers wanted to push the government into accepting this idea of a free state, and did some violent things like explode bombs, but the government did not want to listen. So a war broke out, and when a war happens in the same country (instead of between countries), it’s called a “civil war.” Remember one of my best songs on Guitar Hero, Welcome to the Jungle? The band, Gun ‘n Roses, came out with a song called Civil War, and in it they ask, “What’s so civil about war, anyway?”

It’s a question that seems to have an obvious answer. Before I left on this trip, I told you there had been a war here, but I did not give details. The reality is that around 100 000 people died in this war from its beginning in 1983 until it ended last year. It’s a number so big that it is hard to imagine. And it’s just as hard to imagine living through this war – any war – and not having your spirits, your will to live, your happiness, your love, all trampled upon and shattered by the pain caused from losing friends and family.

When I was your age, my mother, your Grandmaman, used to read a lot of books about the Second World War. The first time I asked her to tell me about the war I could see a profound sadness in her eyes. I never forgot what she said to me. She told me of the things that took place in “concentration camps,” where some bad people took innocent men, women and children and they ruined a lot of lives. It was after the Second World War when people from around the world said “This is enough. We can’t let something like this happen again.” And that’s when people came up with documents like the Convention on the Rights of the Child I wrote about in my last letter.

Unfortunately, a document that says everyone has rights does not mean that people will live their lives that way. Wars still continue all over the world today. There was a lot of violence a few years ago in Rwanda, where many people were killed. People who survived that ordeal have lived to tell others about it, not because they want others to feel bad, but to remind them that violence of any kind should not be tolerated, ever. Today we had a meeting with Sri Lankans who were part of our training program at John Abbott College (the one where both of you helped out). We asked them to describe their best memory of their time at the college. One man, Aruna said the person who left the biggest impression on him was a woman from Rwanda who spoke about living through the violence, even though some soldiers did bad things to her in her home while her children were in another room. Sometimes it takes the words, the actions, or the courage of a single person to affect our lives, or to give us the clarity we need to make us better persons. Another person we met today, Ermiza, told us the story of an army officer she bumped into after having trained him the year before on human rights. He told her that whenever he saw people on the street protesting against something, he used to break up the crowd by driving through it. That’s right: he’d jump into his vehicle and force them to break up by driving into them. After his training on human rights, he thought to himself, These people have the right to say what they want, so I’ll let them do that. And so he stopped driving into them. Sounds like a little change, but I’m sure the people who were not run over by him are happy he thought of their rights for once.

Sometimes it takes just one person to change lives. You’ll find those people in the unlikeliest places, at the most improbable times, in school or on the street or on TV or at the pool. Find them out, hear what they have to say, and by all means, be such a person to others as well.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.