On making decisions about who to help

At times I wonder whether I’m being callous when I decide I’m not going to help with a particular problem or cause. I might have been talking to a Greenpeace champion about fracking in Northern Canada, watching attention-starved children in ‘The Long Way Round’, or walking past an old gent curled up with his ageing Alsatian outside my train station. And I don’t really react, I neither travel to the home of Ice Road Truckers, board a plane for Bucharest, nor buy a hot chocolate for the old fella. I just turn away and let the issue slip down into my sub-conscious, and swallow back the lump of guilt that rises in my throat.

There is a degree of pressure on all of us to recognise the troubles that other people, other species, and our environment are facing. If I read the paper, listen to the news on the radio and check Facebook, I’ll have learnt of a dozen local and global problems by lunch time. How can I ignore so many opportunities to help? Even though all these problems appear to have at least a couple of degrees of separation from me, I feel a compulsion to do something about at least some of them. I can’t do everything though, I can’t save the world, can I? How do I balance genuine care and concern against beating myself up for my inaction?

Lately I’ve begun thinking that the key to my self-improvement might lie in consideration. If I actively think my choices through rather than letting myself operate on some sort of auto-pilot then I tend to make better decisions. More importantly though I also then learn more from each choice I make, I pay more attention to the results and any unforeseen consequences. So what happens when I start making thoughtful decisions on who to help?

A couple of months ago I caught up with a loveable Essex lad I used to cook with. Over several rounds of cider I found that he had made a conscious decision in determining which issues he would tackle. He explained that he didn’t want to appear naive or unconcerned, but that he no longer read newspapers or internet news sites. He had realised he could spend all his waking hours ranting about issues he could never affect, or he could instead spend that time interacting with his workmates, family and friends. He’d chosen to focus just on the people he came into contact with each day. He now has the time and inclination to stop and chat to the upset looking Polish plumber on the way to work. He draws his understanding of the world from those around him and prefers to develop opinions based on first hand experience. I see it as a considered switch to ‘think globally, act locally’, as he deals only with the issues within his own realm, though he has an understanding of how his actions might also affect the wider world.

At the time I liked the idea of consciously limiting my concerns to those closest to me, and fending off those issues that don’t directly affect my relatives, my friends or my neighbours. I thought that if we all simply concentrated in helping those around us then we might also gradually impact the larger issues. But after further consideration I’ve realised that most of us don’t take the time to create our own moral code, and as such I can’t trust that everyone will act in the best interests of anyone beyond themselves. So I think I need to concern myself with the wider ideas as well, the bigger issues.

But being concerned isn’t enough. Nor is just showing concern. A few days after catching up with my British mate I found myself back in my home town chatting to one of my best friends and confidantes. We talked about the frustration of listening to people get fired up on ideas and then never doing anything about them. We focussed on our social responsibilities and found firm agreement on the need to turn the energy we might spend venting anger over an issue into action. Ranting to my friends about the Eastern European slave trade might earn me kudos for being a concerned, informed person but doesn’t really result in anything positive. In fact continual one-sided conversations about the world’s evils results in me acting as an amplifier for fear rather than a catalyst for change. Rather than spending my time repeating what I’ve read on news sites I need to start considering each situation, and then deciding whether I’m actually going to do something about it. If I am horrified to learn that insufficient lighting along university walkways is resulting in woman fearing to attend night classes then I have a choice: I can spread the contagion of dismay through angered conversations about men’s inability to police each other or I can use my spare time to raise money for new lighting. It is so much more positive and rewarding to use the passion born of dismay to plan useful action, rather than to promote society’s failures.

The rewards of deciding to act to help others are many, but just as important as considered action is considered inaction. The by-product of thinking each issue through and determining which to act on, is that I’ve also considered which of them I’m not going to act on. If I have made a mindful decision to contribute to a particular problem then I can discard it without shame rather than simply suppressing thoughts of it. I can then answer to people if they confront me about my inaction, though the only person I ever really need to answer to is myself.

A friend recently introduced me to American writer/activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Colleen has a piece of advice which I think summarises my ideas on being charitable: ‘Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything’.

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