Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an independent international medical humanitarian organization that provides aid to people in some 60 countries whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. You can learn more about its work by visiting their website here.
So instead of asking for letters or cards this year for Christmas, I’ve decided to fundraise for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) donations. I was motivated in large part by recent events in Aleppo, but it’s also part of a larger personal story that I’m a bit nervous about sharing. Even so, I’m including it below because it explains a lot of things, including why I finally decided to make this page. If you do choose to read it (full disclosure: I wrote a full-on, literal essay!), you have my crazy appreciation and love. Alternatively, feel free to skip straight to the fundraising page and donate here. Either way, thank you!!
In 1759, economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” an excerpt of which I read in my English 45B class during my first semester at Cal. Smith’s point, in short, is this: If there was a massive earthquake one day that swallowed up the inhabitants of an entire country halfway around the world—a man would grieve, naturally—lament the loss, cry, ruminate over his own morality, perhaps. At the end of the night, however, he would go to bed, distraught, perhaps, but satisfied with his outpouring of humane sentiment for millions of abstract lives lost abroad.
Now take this same man—and chop off his little finger. Then send him to bed with his new misfortune. He will not sleep.
Although I was only a freshman at the time, this piece continued to resonate with me throughout my four years there and beyond, emerging once in a while with the sympathetic but philosophical ease that surfaces when we are discussing a natural disaster or recent tragedy that is happening somewhere else, somewhere far away—but not to us, not personally. “That’s so sad,” we say solemnly, before shaking our heads and complaining about the weather.
The difference between how we respond to the distant suffering of faceless multitudes and the immediate, deeply-felt suffering that we experience firsthand is not new, but it is stark, especially in the wake of the global upheaval that has shaken the world at its core this year. Nor is the difference necessarily a bad thing: to want to protect those that we love first, to immerse ourselves with compassion in the pain and distress of those closest to us, is an amazing desire that allows us to sustain our communities and most intimate relationships with urgency and grace. The impulse is a natural mechanism, designed to prevent us from depleting our reserve of empathetic energy completely, and as someone who self-identifies as both emotionally and compassionately driven, I defend it to the last.
But this disparity between our reactions is also often the difference between benevolently-minded passivity—like reacting with a sad teardrop emoji on a post about a recent tragedy or posting a short homage before scrolling through a feed filled with news and dancing kittens for the next five hours—and urgent action. In no way am I saying that these social media engagements themselves are unhelpful: our camaraderie and shared outreach in the midst of turmoil is necessary, and as someone who personally works in the media, I firmly believe that the kind of global connection that we have achieved today is one that would have been utterly unimaginable twenty, even ten years ago. And not everyone can afford the time or resources needed to enact change beyond their immediate lives: we must pick our battles and inevitably leave others untouched. But for those of us who can make a difference—and I include myself here—too often we post, we click, we read the news report, we lament, we feel helpless to do anything more, we turn off our browsers, we return to our lives and/or our cat memes. We are Smith’s (wo)man, pinky and all.
This was a fact of which I was not made truly aware until about half a year ago, when someone suggested to me for the very first time that empathy, in itself, was not inherently useful because it did not generate tangible action. It was a jarring statement to hear spoken so levelly and unabashedly, and from someone with whom I was meant to be close: as someone who has always prided herself on giving 110% to ensuring the well-being and happiness of those around her, I couldn’t imagine that something as beautiful and life-changing as empathy could have limits. It also hurt—a little at first, a lot as time wore on. Each time I heard a variation on these words or experienced them in practice, it felt like little pieces of my only stable identity were being eroded, painstakingly but steadily, with no ill will per se but so methodically, with such detached and unyielding reason that I didn’t really know how to respond. I couldn’t quite put into words the kind of subtle damage that such a new, incompatible view of philanthropy inflicted on me when it was urged so unyieldingly—and so I never did.
Instead, I slowly began trying to make myself learn to compromise, to give this new approach a fair try: I read more news, I consumed more information about the world, I expanded both my mind and my sense of the shifting global landscape of which I was an indelible part. I wasn’t doing anything to enact change at this point yet, really, but it was still an edifying—and in some ways, self-gratifying—enterprise. Reason. Information. Facts. I suppose that in some vaguely theoretical way, I was setting myself up to take informed action if I ever needed to do so, and that certainly is a merit of the approach to which I still hold.
The most surprising—and unexpected—change that resulted from this, however, was that I gradually became both more empathetically and more compassionately motivated than before. Rather than embracing the detached idea of rational compassion (which Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science Paul Bloom expounds in his recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion), I began to channel this idea through my personal philosophy of fellow-feeling. I reflected on what moments throughout the day made me feel something strong: sympathy, compassion, empathy, grief. Once I had identified these emotions, I made a list of the things that I could actually do to transform that emotion into productive actions, some small and some more significant: I made a pact with myself to chat with any homeless individual who asked for a meal and then buy one for them; I made phone calls and began writing letters to my representatives about problematic policy initiatives; I reached out more proactively to friends to offer support; I started researching causes that I knew I cared about deeply and unapologetically; I donated to causes that I could not support physically. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
I’m not a theory-minded individual by any stretch of the imagination—never ask me about Derrida or Foucault, unless you enjoy blank stares tinged with a hint of side-eye—and abstraction is far beyond my comfort zone. But that’s why I needed to learn and make the idea of action-oriented giving my own, to make it both personal and tangible again in a way that I suspect some of us out there do need. I stopped searching for external validation and quietly started my own plan of action, beginning with the local (which was immediately visible and therefore easy for me to tackle) before expanding to the national and even the global (which were abstract and therefore much harder for me to grasp). Even now, the whole process is still a work in progress, and it was a rather rough lesson learned, but it’s been impactful nonetheless and I am infinitely thankful because of it.
I also learned something else incredibly important through it all: I’ve found that we all have our own ways of, and approaches to, giving. As far as I know, there really is no right or wrong way to give: I respect the person who works hard and donates some of her earnings to an international organization that will be able to save thousands of lives every year through emergency health services; I respect equally the person who may never save a single life directly but volunteers at the local homeless shelter every week and brings a smile to the face of a stranger who has forgotten what it means for someone to truly care. I admire the teachers, the parents, the humanitarian aides, the park rangers, the doctors—all of the givers in our day-to-day lives who remind us that to be selfless is not to take away from yourself, but rather to recognize just how intricately our individual well-being and existence is woven into our connections with the world and people around us. It’s never just a numbers game, because the joy of giving is boundless. As Maya Angelou once wrote: “When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”
And so here I am. An individual under no illusion that her one-time $50 donation to MSF or even a seasonal fundraiser will change the entire situation in Aleppo or fix the rest of the world, but also with the conviction that these decisions come from a place that is more personal to me than if I had simply made a carefully reasoned donation a year ago. In a way, I am finally allowing myself to do exactly what I once felt, and was sometimes made to feel, guilty about doing: to give with kindness and heart, with such effusiveness until I am fit to burst with it, in ways that strengthen those around me and prepare me to give more every single day. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this post in the first place: if even a handful of you feel motivated to give a little bit more today after reading this, even in the tiniest of ways, then sharing these thoughts was worth it.
As Chinese philosopher Laozi once reflected: “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
As a way of giving back for the time that it took you to read this (heh, sneaky I know), I am already planning my next MSF donation so here’s the deal: for every person who leaves a comment below, I’ll donate an additional $1 to Doctors Without Borders. Share, tag friends, whatever. ‘Tis the season, and I’m making this donation anyway so this is your chance to jump on the giving boat! That being said…
I hope you guys will consider giving today as well: whether it’s to my fundraising page or just the charity of your choice, $5 or $500, it all makes a difference. Happy holidays, and even happier giving!