It was Sunday, November 15. I had just finished up a largely unproductive workout at the Crossfit gym and found myself in Starbucks, preparing to bury the benefits of my half-assed cardio in a tall chai latte (31 g sugar, 150 cals). The weekend had sucked.
Why did the weekend suck? On November 13, about 130 people were killed, and another several hundred injured, in a series of criminal attacks on soft targets in Paris. Following that news came a tail of perspective pieces detailing the death tolls of soft-target attacks happening in the Middle East and North Africa every single day. Innocent lives are taken in horrific attacks while I sit across the ocean and lament things like “I bought the wrong flavor of yogurt by accident” and “my mother walked across my white rug in shoes.”
This made me sad, and so I took to the internet to find out whether there was anything I, and people like me, could do to help. And the answer is, honestly, not all that much. We can’t go over there without quitting our day jobs and putting our lives completely on hold. Even if we were to do that, we might not be able to get into many of the places where people need help (visa laws and all that). And even if we did get in, we would have the least clue of anybody there about what should be done. The very idea of doing this reminded me of the time that I visited my high school friend in the hospital after she had gotten injured in a car crash. As I was leaving her hospital room I fainted. Flat on the floor. Her poor father had to care for me instead of his daughter until my mom picked me up. I don’t want to be the international aid equivalent of the high school friend that fainted and made everything worse.
So, barring that, the remaining option for helping is to give money. The thing is, though, that I can’t alleviate my conscience by giving money, because I have no idea what happens to that money. I’m not doubting that aid organizations do good things with the money, but I, perhaps selfishly, cannot satisfy my concerns by giving money because I cannot directly see the outcome of that kind of help. I’ll never know for certain that I made a difference at all. I need to be able to see it. Maybe that’s a flaw. Humans are notorious for failing to comprehend that anything ever transpires outside their own personal experience. I try hard to fight that. I guess I’m not as successful at it as I’d like to believe.
But when I ruminate on the vast difference between my life and the lives of others — and my powerlessness to help the people I’m seeing on the news — I feel guilty, and sad, and angry. The idea of avoiding those feelings by not thinking about it somehow makes me feel more guilty, and sad, and angry. I know that some people succeed with this approach, at least one of whom will be yelling at me for having written this post in the first place (he will use the words “doom and gloom”).
Starbucks was having a sale: two miniature chocolate donuts for the price of one. I have very little willpower against chocolate, so I bit. A few blocks later, I had consumed the first donut and decided I didn’t really need the second.
I contemplated throwing it away. Then I remembered that, in about two blocks, I’d walk under an overpass where a few homeless people sleep.
I pass them every time I walk from the gym to the building where I work. Most of the time we ignore each other. I think one of them said something to me once. I often hold my breath as I pass by the area that they use to relieve themselves.
So maybe I’m sad and angry that I can’t help directly with crises overseas — that I don’t have the freedom, the knowhow, whatever it takes to be of use to those people. But here I am about to pass a few folks who could really use some food. And I’ve got this donut.
Is it the best nutritional choice? Decidedly not, but it has a little snowman painted on it, and everyone can appreciate a festive wintertime treat.
I got lucky: I did not have to choose which homeless person would receive my donut. Only two were present, and they were both asleep under the same blanket. I teetered over to them and nestled the donut, in its paper bag, on top of the blanket between the two of them. Then I kept walking.
Yeah, distributing a donut isn’t exactly heroic. But I think the conclusion I’m reaching is that acts of kindness shouldn’t be construed as heroism: they should be an everyday thing we do, like taking out the garbage or washing our hands or holding the door open for someone. And though our small acts don’t look like much by themselves, they have two advantages:
- We can witness their effects, which motivates us to do more of them.
- When enough people do them constantly, it can make a big difference.
William James talks about this in The Principles of Psychology. The book is old (think references to horse-carts and coachmen), but within it he makes the case that people often experience a positive emotion and then fail to turn that emotion into any kind of action. He argues that, if a man feels a desire to be kind, then he should act on that desire — even if the thing that provoked the desire to be kind isn’t ultimately the recipient of the kindness. If we believe this, then a tragedy overseas is, in fact, a tiny bit about us. Because when we hear the news, we get to choose how we react to it. Do we waste our desire to help by feeling powerless, or do we use that emotion as the impetus to put something good into the world — even if it’s not related to the event on TV?
I don’t always find that so easy. I convince myself that it’s too much work. Sometimes I just don’t feel well enough to spread the wealth. I don’t feel like talking to people, and I’m doing enough by not being actually rude to people — aren’t I?
I remember a Chapel Talk delivered at my high school by my physics teacher, Scott Dering. Dr. Dering taught an excellent physics class, and he also delivered regular admonitions reminding us not to smoke, or to always wear our seat belts. His Chapel Talk described a spectrum ranging from the blue zone (being rude to people, making people’s day worse) to the grey zone (not being rude, basically) to the red zone (actively making people’s days better). He argued that we think of the grey zone as socially acceptable, but that moral social behavior actually lies in the red zone.
I love the idea, but I guess I’m too selfish to execute on that all the time.
Then again, there’s this idea, so common that it’s cliché: you feel better after you’ve done someone some kind of kindness. And given that that is true, doesn’t telling yourself you don’t feel well enough to be kind make about as much sense as telling yourself that you’re too hungry to eat?
I would love to perform a study that correlates people’s moods with how much they have helped someone else in the recent past. I don’t know how we would measure the inputs yet, because we’d have to rely either on self-reporting or on a vast army of stealthy stalkers. But I’m not convinced that there isn’t a causal link there. What if we could improve our own moods by helping other people?
It might not ameliorate world crises — not right away, at least — but maybe it could ameliorate depression and loneliness among the helpers. Maybe it could also ameliorate the troubles of the helpees. And if the result of a terror attack is not, in fact, terror, but instead an outpouring of assistance in all directions, then that is the most effective counterterrorism measure we have.
Here’s the thing about myriad criminal attacks on soft targets: they take many, mannnnnyyy more resources to defend against than they take to commit. The amount of resources it would take to defend every civilian gathering is so astronomically high. Defense — that is, making attacks ineffective — isn’t going to work for us.
The alternative is deterrence — that is, making someone not want to attack in the first place. Nuclear warheads are a deterrent. They aren’t going to stop an incoming missile, but they might make somebody think twice before firing that missile, because the retaliation would wipe them out.
We can’t deter terrorism with a warhead — decentralized criminal networks take too many resources to find. They’re also integrated into soft targets, so we can’t just blow them up anyway. The alternative is to make the attack pointless for the perpetrators’ purposes. They want to engender fear, usually to achieve a political or ideological goal. So if the result of a terror crime is an outpouring of assistance and empathy in all directions, then the event does the opposite of what the perpetrators want: it lessens their power over people, and it unites people instead of dividing them. If attacking civilians becomes counterproductive for fomenting fear and conflict, then it doesn’t make sense to do it anymore.
So next time you give a homeless person a donut, or send a care package to someone who is sick, or teach someone to do something, or help somebody who is lost or scared, you might as well imagine that you’re fighting terrorism. Because, in some small way, you just might be.