So, most conscientious young people want to do something important with their life. In the face of earth’s horrible injustices, they are deeply aggravated, disturbed, and profoundly saddened. They know business as usual is a morally appalling option.
Such deeply feeling young people are susceptible to many conflicting philosophies offering to be “part of the solution.” There are currently 1.5 million NPO’s in the country, all doing things to help, all with remarkably different views of what help looks like.
So these zealous emotions to do something wonderful to help, while truly beautiful and benevolent, are uniquely perplexing. And while proposed solutions are rampant, social problems are in no short supply either, especially on the global scale.
Then we compare our domestic US problems to 95% of the world and ours can seem rather trivial. Still we innately know thinking globally does not excuse ignoring locally. If your head is not starting to hurt yet, I am failing to make the point: It’s overwhelming!
About now I love to think about international relief and development workers coming home to their middle class US neighborhoods. Do they possibly have anything left to offer their local community? What about their own families?
To what degree can we naively (though genuinely) propose to care about everyone in the world (I must quote Woody Allen in Annie Hall here1), yet we neglect the needs in our own home. Soon the bleeding heart has bled out and what’s left ain’t so pretty.
A burnt out social worker or relief worker may be one the most sarcastic people alive. They are rightly annoyed by the desperately shallow “first-world problems” demanding the attention of so many. Compared to emergency care work...what really compares?
So predictably the petty lethargy and self-obsession of the locals can be maddening. How many people around the world are in completely dire situations - starving, homeless, abused, neglected. Yet we fancy our problems worthy of absolute attention.2
How does the unfortunately conscientious person find a way to manage normal middle income America, where they collide with the dangerous trifecta of realized American values: security, comfort, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., my happiness not yours)?
Some of our best don’t figure out how to balance this tension. They are forced to turn off the inquisitor within. They are forced to silence the inner-prophet. They eventually permit themselves to enjoy some of those comforts but not without a big helping of guilt.
This is where art enters. In the heart of one deeply wounded by the overwhelming suffering of so many, almost too wounded, a deal is struck. A way is discovered to focus the red hot heat of such compassion and indignation: the way of the artist!
1 Annie Hall: Alvy, you're incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you're like New York City. You're just this person. You're like this island unto yourself. Alvy Singer: I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.
2 The American marketing machine, in fact, is so good at occupying the consciousness of the people we can believe we are the only ones left on the planet.