Things That Keep Me Up at Night

I am monstrously lucky.

Sure, I have a tough time making ends meet sometimes and have the usual worries of a modern person in 21st century America, which is to say that I am better off than 99% of the world’s population.

Anyone who can read these words is lucky. Anyone who has all of their senses and resides in that part of the world’s population centers having sufficient technology to access the Internet (far less than 50% of the planet) is lucky.

We all know this, and we internalize it and move on, and bitch about our status anyway. But the “lucky” aspect of this is just the beginning.

There are two ideas that nag at me:

(1)    All of the terrible suffering endured in the world is entirely capricious and it is therefore literally true that it would have been better had no one ever been born. No consciousness, no pain.

(2)    Our moral imperative is to help others to whatever extent we can without regard to our personal means or geography, and when we do anything that is not directly assisting others we are egregiously immoral.

These may seem in opposition, but in actuality these ideas are mutually supportive. If we find ourselves in the midst of a war, once we moved past our own survival, would we not tend to the wounded around us? Suppose we disagreed with the reasons for the war. Suppose we found ourselves in a remote country, where we did not speak the language, and couldn’t even begin to understand the motives for war. We should still help the wounded, shouldn’t we?

If not, why not? What possible argument could there be to support our desire to (1) do nothing in the face of the war around us, or (2) take some other action that involves not helping others?

We are not (or, at least, most of us capable of reading this at the moment) in the middle of a war. However, we are on planet Earth, and the atrocities taking place at this very second are too numerous to mention. We all know these are going on around each second of every day and we limit our horizons to those in a small circle around us. And if we ever do think about the problems of the world, we quickly assure ourselves that our resources are such that we could never really make a difference.

Is that relevant? Suppose I can only, by expending the totality of my energies of my lifetime, reduce total universal misery by some pathetic, barely existent fraction of 1%. Does that mean I shouldn’t do it? What possible argument could be levied against using my life in this way? That it could be better used in some other way? Then it becomes a matter of calculation, and possible disagreement, but this would be a choice of possible alternatives within the structure of helping others. One possibility that would definitely be excluded would be, for example, to eke out a comfortable existence for myself and my family and friends, and buy a television and two cars and all the various accoutrements of modern life. All those resources could be better used in alleviating misery.

You might want to punch me at this point, and I don’t blame you. Please tell me where I’m wrong.

Every time I decide to share a laugh with a friend, or pick up Richard II and curl up in my favorite chair, or write in this blog, instead of volunteering at a homeless shelter, I am fit to be damned.

If this isn’t true, then why isn’t it true?

“You can’t be expected to live your life that way.”

“Being with friends makes you a good person, not a bad one.”

“First do no harm. You are not expected to bring evil into the world, but you can’t ask that everyone in the whole world dedicate their lives to bettering one another.”

These are not arguments.

Let’s take another example.

Everyone recognizes overindulgence. We might disagree about where the line lies, but everyone understands the concept and agrees that it would apply to one situation or another.

Let’s pick one: A man buys a Porsche.

Without judging in any way whether this action is good or bad, we can all recognize that there is no practical reason to ever buy a Porsche. Unlike, say, an SUV, wherein people talk themselves into believing they “need” one because they have kids, no such rationale can ever be given for a Porsche. There is no important reason to ever buy one. People like them because they are cool, or because they go very fast, but not because they aid in the assistance of others.

So that’s overindulgence.

Now look at the world. We see monumental universal misery all around us.

Is it an exaggeration to say that, in the face of universal human misery, that it is an overindulgence to treat oneself to an ice cream? Every time one is faced with the desire to have an ice cream, one would have to weigh its benefits against the global benefits of using those resources to help a starving person, for example. Will your desire for ice cream ever outstrip the need of the destitute?

“Well, I have to provide for my kids.”

Does providing for one’s kids mean buying expensive presents and sending them to expensive schools or even buying them clothes at some place other than Goodwill? If we’re serious about the simple principle of assisting others, then every dime we have that could be used for help and isn’t used for that renders us morally repugnant.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More has been imprisoned for refusing to sign the Act of Succession. His friend Norfolk attempts to get him to comply and sign the act, and they have the following exchange:

NORFOLK: Oh, confound all this…I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names…You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?

MORE: (Moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

More’s God is a fascinating entity who lays traps for the learned. More’s intelligence enables him to be more in danger of Hellfire than Norfolk, whose simplicity assures his ascension even if he is in the wrong. Remarkable.

Of course I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, which one could argue makes everything pointless. I am myself haunted by the possibility that this play has been run again and again in a mindless eternity for no one’s amusement. But, as I noted at the beginning, this amplifies our responsibility rather than reducing it. The difference is that the damnation is entirely within the limitations of our own consciences.

I’m not saying I have any answers, or that I’m right. I don’t know. That’s the reason I’m up.


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