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 son (the original)

A letter written when my first born was two days old:
October 7, 2000

My Dearest Alexandre,

I love you with all my heart, and this love will grow with each passing day, each precious moment. You’ll create your own special moments, Alexandre, but promise me you’ll do the following:

  • Travel across Canada by road and admire the beauty your country offers you, from the twisting roads of Cape Breton, to the serene beauty of the Great Lakes, to the glorious vastness of the Prairies, to the magnificence of the Rockies, to the lush countryside of the West, and the eclectic and diverse buzz of your hometown Montreal;
  • Seek out new friends in the above travels, appreciate and celebrate your differences and similarities;
  • Chase little crabs on the beach in Martinique;
  • Take a trip through the Green Mountains in Vermont;
  • Swim in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, not to mention the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas;
  • Marvel from a plane at Mount Sinai and Mount Kilimanjaro;
  • Go through a rain forest and cloud forest in Costa Rica;
  • Buy expensive bottled water at a street cafe in Holland;
  • Gamble in Las Vegas (but just a little);
  • Kayak in the Pacific, white water raft down the Zambezi;
  • Drive through the streets of Tete, Mozambique, and be thankful that the streets are now paved and no longer bombed from civil war;
  • Give money to a guy on the street who looks like he needs it;
  • Visit my father’s grave and tell him you love him even though he’s never met you;
  • Go on safari in Africa as often as possible and admire the planet’s most beautiful creatures while they’re still there;
  • Go to Area 51 and search for aliens;
  • Paint a picture of something you love;
  • Have the courage to go to Malawi and say “Zonse zili bwino” to those in need – you will see many;
  • Go to the villages of Saag-balong, Woribo Kukuo, and Yipelnaayi and see if girls and women play significant, recognized roles in their communities;
  • Climb Mount Washington, Mount Marcy, and Mount Mulanje (but not in the same day);
  • Bobsled in Lake Placid;
  • Go through the Chunnel in a high-speed train;
  • Try to waterski better than your father;
  • Take a ferry from Italy to Greece;
  • Walk through the streets of Arusha, Tanzania, knowing that thousands of refugees from Zaire fled there to safety and that tens of thousands sought refuge there from killings in Rwanda;
  • Forget about the bad things people say about you, remember the good;
  • Have scotch and a cigar with a friend (but not for a while, son);
  • Walk the streets of New York City, but don’t get shot at;
  • Walk to the rim of a crater in Central America;
  • Ride a train through Europe;
  • Dream to be an astronomer, a pilot, a fireman, a voice for social change in the world;
  • Travel to the Olduvai Gorge and view the birthplace of humankind;
  • See the Grand Canyon;
  • Go to Zanzibar and marvel at its beauty and meet its people;
  • Walk into the slave forts along the coast of Ghana and reflect on how evil and wicked people can be;
  • Write a play and direct it and star in it;
  • See the giant redwoods in California, and look up in awe at trees over 260 feet tall;
  • Scare yourself to death by trekking on the canopy walk in Cape Coast;
  • Make money and spend money, but remember that love is more important;
  • Eat peanut butter every day;
  • Appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future and strive towards it;
  • Go camping whenever you can;
  • Save a pigeon and nurse him to health in your toy box;
  • Dance, no matter how goofy you look;
  • Love your parents as much as we love you, and
  • Strive to make a difference in your life, the lives of the ones you love, and even strangers’ lives each and every day of your life. You’ll sleep better at night.
All my love, 

Young people: hope for the future? Sure thing

Whew. I just googled two things: “are young people stupid,” which gave me 162 million hits (!), and “young people hope for the future,” which yielded 221 million hits. Not that this means much, but it’s an indicator – completely unscientific, I know – that the word “hope” is linked more frequently with “young people” than stupid.

Old people like me (did I just call myself old? I meant wise) need to be reminded once in a while that the future of the human race is not doomed to extinction. I must admit when I look at the current state of human rights in the world, I wonder how we – collective we of Earth – got to this point. Also how we – the people of Earth whose rights are essentially fully realized – don’t do more to help those in need. Because of this, old/wise people like me tend to look at youth/young people/anyone half my age with two things in mind: 1) we hope the smart, passionate and empathetic ones maintain their positive outlook on life and continue to make a difference in this world, and 2) we hope the stupid ones smarten up. Come on, let’s be honest: when the old/wise ones look at the young stupid ones, they probably see a little bit of their own character reflected in their stupid youth. When we old/wise people tell the younger ones to smarten up, it’s because we’ve been there, and it’s not a good road to travel.

I say all this because a couple of weeks ago I met with two wonderful young persons who give me hope for the future. They’re intelligent, passionate, have taken steps to travel around the world and see how less-priviledged people live, and are committed to making a difference in the lives of strangers. One of them helped organize a “comedy for a cause” event here in Montreal for an organization in Ecuador that provides education to children (United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children, International). She traveled to Ecuador last year and spent some time helping out the organization and wants to do more. The other went to Malawi last year to volunteer for an organization that helps youth (YONECO) and started Friends of YONECO, a group of like-minded individuals who are raising funds for YONECO and will travel to Malawi later this year to help the organization.

Hell, at 21 I spent my money on beer and my time watching Star Trek. I regret neither, but in retrospect, I could have done more. So a tip of the hat to Sophie and Neil, for showing us old/wise people that youth are a bright hope for the future, and they are also a reminder that the old/wise folks need to do their part as well.