This piece was originally published in The Humanist.
The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply About Other People’s Suffering
You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to Number One), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.
You get to waste a lot of time. You get to spend a lot of time trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently, and was asking people to say something about it, I saw people seriously argue that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time, and that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) This isn’t a waste of time, in the sense that it often is effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and get other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent just doing the damn work.
And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you get to feel just a little bit bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.
You get to feel guilty. You get to worry about whether you’re doing it right, whether you should be working on something different, whether you could do better. You get to feel vividly conscious of the ways that you, yourself, contribute to other people’s suffering: buying products made by exploited labor, banking with banks that exploit the poor, driving cars that spew greenhouse gas. Every time you don’t take action, every time you don’t help, every time you don’t donate money or don’t volunteer time or don’t hit “Share” or “Retweet” on the fundraising letter, you get to feel bad about it. And every time you do donate or volunteer or spread the word, you get to worry about whether you could have done it better, or whether you could have done more.
You get to feel helpless. A lot. Once you open yourself up to other people’s suffering, you quickly become aware of just how much of it there is, and how little you personally can do about it. You get to feel overwhelmed. You get to be vividly aware of the fact that no matter what you do, no matter how much you work and sacrifice, at the end of your life there will still be a massive amount of suffering in the world. I sometimes think the helplessness is worse than the guilt, that the guilt is a defense mechanism against the helplessness. Feeling like you could have prevented suffering gives you a sense of control, makes you feel like you can prevent it in the future. As crappy as it is to feel like you could have done something and didn’t, I think it’s sometimes harder to feel like there’s nothing you could have done.
And you never, ever, ever get a break. You never really get a vacation; you never get to retire. When you do go on vacation, you think about the lives of the people who clean your hotel rooms and wait on your tables. You leave generous tips, and feel how inadequate that is. It’s like the red pill in The Matrix: once you’ve swallowed it, you can’t un-swallow it. Once you know, really know, about other people’s suffering, you can’t un-know it. You have to care about it, and feel it, and feel guilty about not doing enough about it, and feel helpless over how little you can do about it — for the rest of your life.
You get to have a life that matters.
You get to make a difference. You get to have a life that’s larger than just yourself, larger than just your own safety and pleasure. You get to feel powerful, in a good way. You get to feel the ripples of your life ripple out into the world. You get to feel like part of history. You get to look back on your life and see how the world is better because you were in it.
You get to feel a sense of connection. You get to feel intimately connected with the world. You get to touch people’s lives, and now and then you get to hear them tell you how. You get to see other people inspired by the work you’re doing, and you get to see them take that inspiration into their own work. You get to be inspired by other people, and you get to take that inspiration into your own work. You get to feel like a link in a chain, like part of something bigger than yourself.
You get an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life?”
You get to not have quite so much cognitive dissonance. You get to enjoy the pleasures of your life, without that twisting, churning feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you’re ignoring something important. Shutting out the reality of other people’s suffering means — well, shutting out reality. It means lying to yourself; it means building a labyrinth of walls inside your head and your heart, a labyrinth of denial and rationalization that leaves calluses and scars. It means living in a bubble, in a gated community that locks you in as surely as it locks the world out. Letting yourself care about other people’s suffering means you don’t have to do that. It’s true that you get to feel guilty about not doing enough — but you also get to put your feet up at the end of the day, and know that you did something worth doing. And it means that you don’t have to shut the world out. You get to let it in.
And you get to know some of the best people in the world. When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, and when you work to do something about it, you start running into other people who also care and work. And these people are amazing. They are brilliant, imaginative, tough, tender, compassionate (obviously), hilarious. They will help you out of a jam. They will listen, really listen, to what’s going on with you. They will show you parts of the world you had no idea existed. They will make your world larger, more complex, more interesting. They will inspire you to be a better person. Sitting around a bar or a cafe or a dining room table, with people who passionately care about the same things you do, with people you share a history with, laughing and gossiping and brainstorming and eating take-out and planning the future — there is nothing like it in the world.
It seems like a hard choice. But honestly — it’s not.
I don’t think I have a choice at this point. I’ve swallowed the red pill, and I can’t un-swallow it; I have this knowledge, and I can’t un-know it. But if I could — if I could let go of the knowledge of other people’s suffering, and just know what life is like with this knowledge and what it’s like without it — I would make the same choice again, every time, without hesitation.