Living in a connected world allows us to feel involved with issues and conflicts that are thousands of miles away. But by keeping our eyes on the world around us, are we possibly ignoring some of the problems on our doorstep?
Being aware of what’s going on in the world on a daily basis has been a priority of mine for as long as I can remember. When I was in theatre, the news was an endless source of inspiration for plays, characters, and settings. Now, as a journalist, I aim to be a part of the process of sourcing and presenting stories. Mistakenly, however, I think I had established an unconscious hierarchy system for news that associated bigger with better.
Most journalists will tell you that news is local. How many people a story affects is the most important qualifier of big news, but the second is how many of those people are part of the intended readership. It is a sad truth that people (in general, not a rule) care more about people they associate as “like them.” Journalists who defended the saturated coverage of Paris vs Beirut said that the massively unequal number of clicks shows that they are simply giving the public what they want. While I find that a very pragmatic way to excuse a blatant valuation of life, it does show that proximity will always be used to justify media attention.
For so long, however, I scoffed at local news. To me, the happenings of the city around me were dwarfed by the multitude of wars and injustices in various pockets of the planet. Why should I care that a few dozen people might get evicted from their homes when there are hundreds who will die while traveling to find a new home? Why does it matter that the bus fare will go up while others have no safe access to public transport whatsoever? Homeless dogs? What about brutally murdered and soon-to-be extinct elephants? And so on, and so on. In the end, it’s pretty easy to make the case for why there is always a bigger problem in the world.
I spoke with a good friend of mine about the issue at length. She works for a non-profit that helps prevent LGBT suicides through education. One day I asked her how she justified putting so much energy into preventing suicide among people that are living relatively privileged lifestyles. Being LGBT in some parts of the world means living in constant fear of persecution, torture, or death. If she really cared, why she didn’t pack up and go try to help those more in need?
Her response was to describe the multitude of people she has seen her job directly affect. They had vocalized their gratitude for the chance to feel more comfortable and accepted in their jobs, schools, and families. Although the majority of people she worked with were complete strangers, they felt like family because they represented the future potential her society had to offer.
I have settled myself into multiple cities over the course of my life, but always had eyes on somewhere else. I never considered that the community around me had the potential to be a direct reflection of my efforts to make it better. While it may be a better place to live in some regards, it still had its own list of serious improvements. You can quantify need, but unless you work in an Emergency Room, it is a dangerous game to play with life.
I started this piece months ago, but was inspired to revisit it after reading Courtney Martin’s article on how privileged young people can sometimes venture naively into solving the worlds problems. The upside to that naivety was recognized by Kevin Starr in his response. From Starrs point of view, many of his best philanthropic work would probably never have been accomplished had he not set out to help as a brazen 19 year old. My contribution to this discussion is that having the urge to help others is, in many ways, to want to live for more than just the life you have. And this is wonderful, and admirable, and should be nurtured. The allure of travel, however, can often blind people to these initial desires. Signing up for an 8 week stint to play with orphans wrapped up in an Indian vacation, is not the best way to nurture that urge. The amount of volunteer applications to many places (turtle sanctuaries in Malta, elephant reserves in Kenya) are so numerous that many places charge volunteers. I have nothing against volunteer holidays, if that combines two things you want to do together. But what could you give to the needy that would cost nothing but your time?
I am not, by any means, advocating putting the head down and tuning out the world. I have simply discovered that compassion and concern do not have to be reserved for the most horrific tragedies of the world. If I do my best to acknowledge how the ‘bigger’ issues manifest themselves in the local community, then I can connect with those issues in my daily life. If nothing else, the dogs will not continue to get shafted by the elephants.