Monday, September 9, 2013

On Altruism and Living a Good Life in a "First World" Country

A friend of mine asked on facebook recently if she should feel guilty about living well in a prosperous part of the world, when so many people around the globe (both local and distant) are suffering from hunger, poverty, and worse.

This isn't related to writing or Gamebooks (although there are exciting things going on on that front! I intend to follow the Windhammer prize, now that we've reached that time of the year again) but I feel that it's worth sharing.

For context, this friend is in training to be a flying trapeze artist. I know, right? XD

First, be aware that overall, violence, poverty and cruelty are on the decline worldwide. Yes, we hear about these horrible things happening every day all over the world, but compared to how things were 500 years ago, or 2000 years ago, or even 50 years ago, overall quality of life (by several measures) has increased dramatically, even if you only look at the poorest third of the population.

Second, self-sacrifice only goes so far. Specifically, I want to draw a distinction between altruism and martyrdom. Altruism is where you do something for others /because it makes you feel good to do it/. We all want, on some level, to be good for the world. It's not an unambiguously selfless act. It's rewarding. But that feel-good, arguably even selfish aspect to it is important because it keeps you going. If you sacrifice past what you can bear, then you can no longer help others. Be kind, and be good, but take care of yourself first. You have so much potential good for the world in you, whether it be creating something that didn't exist before, doing something beautiful to bring joy to others, or even just filling an important organizational role that helps keep our massive, complex society running. If you burn yourself out in the name of "good" you kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Third, our system is actually pretty amazing in that (in general, and with exceptions--it's not perfect!) capitalism rewards people who provide something good that makes the world a better place. If your flying trapeze work brings something amazing into the hearts of people who watch you, they'll pay $15 bucks a pop or whatever to come watch it, and you get to survive and keep doing it. There's nothing to feel guilty about in this. You need training, a home, food, and some personal satisfaction in life in order to keep providing the service that you provide to the world.

Honestly, the best thing you can do for the world is specialize in what you love and excel at, and do that with all your heart. We're a community--no one person can do all the jobs. It's not your job to cure Aids, or solve the economy to raise daily-income rates around the world, or even provide some food and shelter to the local homeless dude (unless you make it your job, in which case do your best!) Someone else has dedicated their life to founding a nonprofit to support a homeless shelter that feeds and shelters people who need it. Trust that they will do their job. Your job is to become amazing at flying trapeze, so that when that manager at the homeless shelter is feeling depressed about the futility of it all, you can inspire them and remind them for a second what flying can feel like.

Find what you bring to the world, and do it well. That's a far greater gift that you can offer than selling all your possessions, giving the money to charity and dying in Alaska.