No, I Do Not Have to Care About Everyone Everywhere, and Neither Do You
A lot of people talk these days about how much they care about one cause or another. They are plastered all over the covers of magazines. Some people want to save the planet, others want to help all the starving children in Africa, or to free the people of Tibet, or oppose the atrocities in Darfur. I do not want to make light of these things; they are serious matters, (that is, all but the first one). But I’m not sure all this caring about the whole world is actually making the world a better place.
In particular, I am bemused by people who seem to make a contest of simply caring. They will say and do anything to prove that they care. They study what they care about; rarely do they question what they study, but they study, anyway. And when you run into those people, let me warn you: do not try to compete. They care about everything more than you do. They care so much that they buy T-shirts, bumper stickers, jeweled brooches shaped like ribbons, rubber bracelets, and baseball caps. This way, you can see that they care by what they wear, even if they have never been within 1,000 miles of what they care about. Apparently, their willingness to wear obnoxious fashion accessories is intended to demonstrate to the rest of the world how selfless they are.
Lots of people also care by going to balls, dances, dinners, speeches, rock concerts, and rallies. Sure, it may just look like they are having a lot of fun with their friends and rubbing elbows with a bunch of celebrities, but, for them, this is “charity work.” Mother Teresa, it would appear, had nothing on them.
I would guess that at least half the stars in Hollywood have entered into some sort of implicit caring contest. They all search for a unique cause that they pin their names on: for some its animals, for others it’s one disease or another, and so on. Now that AIDS is passé, they are madly scrambling to try and find some unique niche that has not been staked out by an even more illustrious celebrity. I can appreciate the fact that some of them believe their famous names can be used to bring needed public attention to serious matters, but even then, I cannot fathom why all of America needs to care about every problem in the world.
I can also applaud when someone donates money to this or that worthwhile cause. Everyone should endeavor to be charitable. However, it is incorrect to presume that this is the moral equivalent of a “good work,” as that term is properly understood. Going to a rock concert to benefit the victims of a tsunami is, well . . . it is simply going to a rock concert. And as for the performing band: they are simply doing what they usually do, they are just not making their normal profit for a night’s work. That may be commendable, but is not the same thing as bringing a poor man on the street a hot bowl of soup and a pair of shoes.
I do not want to belittle the benefits of providing funds to worthy causes (assuming that the money actually gets there), I simply find it disturbing that people necessarily equate this sort of sterile “giving” to more concrete virtues. In particular, it is easy to be generous when your bank account shows six or seven zeroes before the decimal point, but it is hard for me to get exercised about a faraway cause, or to feel guilt when I decide some cause does not justify more than an honorable mention in my nightly prayer intentions. If people have the time and wherewithal to be extravagantly generous, more power to them, but I sincerely wish these people would spare me the wisdom of their worldly insights as though I have some personal obligation to share their passion du jour.
It is especially galling when some of the same individuals who try to preach about our “humanitarian” obligations simultaneously treat the humans around them—spouses, children, family members, friends, and associates—like expendable or inconvenient appendages that can be cast aside in pursuit of some other goal. This is simply moral confusion. It is easy to care about pet causes when that is what they are: pets. Like having a pet dog, these people can just dump some food in their pet’s bowl, then pat their heads now and then when it suits their needs and makes them feel better. It is a much more commendable, if less glamorous, thing to bear the daily responsibility of being a dependable, patient, forgiving, present, caring, and loving spouse, parent, child, sibling, neighbor, and friend. Dedication to a grand cause, in the way these people do it, is an indulgence. As a matter of fact, I sometimes think their zeal for these causes is directly proportionate to the guilt they feel for being obscenely wealthy or dissolute.
By questioning the worthiness of this hip trend toward caring for every outlandish and far-flung cause under the sun, I certainly do not wish to tar everyone with the same brush. There are very many wealthy people who are also good people, who feel that giving toward a worthy cause is the right thing to do given their good fortune, and it is their way of sharing their bounty with others less fortunate. But I would just as soon dispense with the insinuations of people whose overt caring is manifestly aimed at making normal, hardworking, middle-class Joes believe that they really need to care or do something about some injustice operating 6,000 miles away. Caring about such things is truly a luxury for those with too much time on their hands, and one that many normal people cannot, and need not, afford.
For those of us who are simply trying to provide a safe and nurturing home for our families, with enough food to eat and enough financial security to see our way through an uncertain future, the welfare of Tibetan exiles comes in, oh, a distant fiftieth or sixtieth place on our lists of priorities. My own moral obligations are pretty well staked out between these four walls; what is not covered here is generally spent in my church, my neighborhood, and my town. After all, if I simply take a short drive, I encounter plenty of people within eyeshot that would clearly benefit from a kind word or deed. Beyond that, there is little room or time in my life for pie-in-the-sky world-saving. I will leave that to the super-heroes of Hollywood and Manhattan.
However, I sincerely wish that these people, like any good superheroes, would hide their true identities and accept thanks from those they have helped as reward enough. Not only do I have no authority or desire to canonize such worthies, I would respect them more if their efforts did not seem so palpably calculated to provide some depth to their otherwise shallow and superficial public personae.
Let me be clear: I am all for caring. But just caring about some obscure cause does little, by itself, to create a better world. All of this energy and money given over to publicity and charitable “events” might be better spent modestly lending a helping hand or sympathetic ear to one’s downtrodden neighbors. Compassion requires a human hand, and a human face. And that human face should not be of Benjamin Franklin, peering out from a hundred dollar bill, spent on a trendy T-shirt intended to show the world how much you “care.”
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