The importance of doing something positive rather than doing nothing

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Choices are rarely this obvious

A few years ago I was with my children in San Francisco. We’d gone to see an art exhibition my daughter was interested in, and we were walking from the car park to the Moscone Center where the art was being displayed.

When we were about 150 meters from our destination we passed a woman who was standing against a wall, a paper cup held out in front of her. It was pretty obvious she’d been on the street for a while.

“Can you help me?” she asked, her voice dry. “I need money for food.”

I stopped to talk to her. She was painfully thin, so her request clearly wasn’t spurious. My son stared at her and I could see his heart was aching for her predicament. My daughter fidgeted, impatient to get to the exhibition.

She had bare arms but I could see no needle marks. Her teeth were unbrushed but otherwise healthy.

“I’m Allan,” I said. “These are my children, Colette and Sam. Would you like to join us for lunch?”

She stared at me. “I’m…” she seemed to struggle to remember. “My name is Nancy.”

“Hello Nancy. What kind of food do you like to eat?”

She dropped her head. “Anything. I’m so hungry.”

“There’s a Chinese restaurant just across the street. Would that work for you?”

She nodded.

My son had the beginnings of tears in his eyes. My daughter rolled hers, impatient and annoyed that I was delaying our visit to the exhibition.

We took Nancy into the restaurant and sat down. She didn’t look at the menu so I asked her if there were any kinds of food she didn’t like or was allergic to. She shook her head. I understood. I’d had times in my life where I’d not eaten for days. Hungry people don’t have the luxury of indulging in food preferences or imaginary intolerances.

When the waiter came I ordered a lot of food and a wide variety. Sam tried to talk to Nancy, telling her we lived in Marin, that we didn’t come into the city very often. I knew he wanted to ask her why she was living on the street but he understood that wasn’t a topic of conversation she likely wanted to pursue.

The food arrived. Nancy’s first few mouthfuls were tentative, as if she were remembering how to eat. She didn’t look up, didn’t make eye contact with any of us. Colette began to eat as though she hadn’t seen food for days, even though we’d had a good breakfast just a few hours earlier. Sam suggested additional items that Nancy could put on her plate.

At the end of the meal there was a significant surplus remaining, as I’d intended. I asked the waiter to box everything up and put it in a bag. Then I explained to Nancy that I’d promised to take my children to the exhibition, so it was time for us to depart. I told her that she was welcome to the boxed food, if she wanted it.

She reached out and took hold of the bag, which contained enough to see her through at least another day.

After we left Nancy, my daughter looked at me and asked, “Why did you give her lunch?”

“Because she needed it. If I’d given her money, perhaps someone would have robbed her or perhaps she might have spent it on something less essential. And besides, sometimes people just need to be with other people for a while, especially if they’ve been alone for a long time or can’t trust anyone around them.”

Sam squeezed my hand. He didn’t want to look at me because his eyes were still teary, but I knew he understood.

When I was Sam’s age, about ten years old, I started to think a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be. As my parents weren’t religious I didn’t have to commence by discarding the irrelevant nonsense of any particular Axial age mythology but was free to start from first principles.

As I grew older and found more and more information in various public libraries I discovered that the topic of ethics filled a great many books and there were a great many overly-abstruse disquisitions on the subject. Little of the philosophy of ethics seemed grounded in real life and most seemed to dodge the really hard issues.

I also began to learn about other primates and the fascinating discoveries being made by women like Goodall and Fossey (I discovered Galdikas later). It was clear to me that we human primates shared a lot of common features with our cousins, including ways to regulate our social behavior.

Slowly I began to assemble the rudiments of a moral framework. It seemed to me that everyone would be better off if we could collaborate more and try to help those who from time to time might need a little assistance. It was also clear to me that this kind of living needed to be a choice made because it made sense, not merely because some arbitrary authority figure was advocating it. I’d already learned enough about how, as herd animals, we humans are so easily led into destructive behaviors by unscrupulous or incompetent or emotionally damaged leaders.

By the age of twelve I’d read enough history to understand that all mythologies are inherently destructive, be they myths about gods and goblins or secular myths about racial purity or psychoanalysis or historical inevitability or national destiny. In my young brain it seemed obvious to me that morality couldn’t be absolute (this was before I discovered the Trolleycar Problem, which demonstrates this clearly) and therefore there would inevitably be discrepancies between real life and myth. These discrepancies would ultimately result in harmful behaviors practiced by those impacted by the unwanted discrepancies as they sought to punish reality for diverging from their beliefs.

Besides, it was obvious that other primates were able to live in reasonably functional social groups without recourse to fantasies about invisible magical creatures or nationalist nonsense.

Furthermore, any supposed morality based on obeying the dictates of some other agent seemed very immoral to me: surrendering one’s own moral judgement in favor of doing what someone else tells you seemed to me a very unsound proposition. The judges at the Nuremberg Trials felt the same way. And the idea of refraining from certain acts in order to avoid punishment appeared to me the very antithesis of morality, being merely a desire to escape pain and seek reward. That’s the morality of a three-year-old who wants a treat, not the morality of a thinking adult.

So very slowly and little by little I began to build up a patchwork philosophy of living based on values I could see having applicability in the world around me. It seemed to me that although anything I could do in my life would likely be very small and without any guarantee of success, it was better to try to do something positive than to be untouched by the plight of those whom perhaps in some small way I might be able to help.

Later I learned the truth of the adage, no good deed goes unpunished. I learned that often the power imbalance inherent between helper and helped leads to resentment, which in turn may lead to unfortunate behaviors. Nevertheless, it seemed to me then, and continues to seem to me now, that it’s better to try than to give up. And perhaps those we help may, sometimes, help others in their turn so that ripples of kindness spread out albeit in an uncertain and unknown manner.

It’s impossible to say what actions we take in our lives will have repercussions, whether large or small. All we can do is make our attempts. Often, we’ll be regarded as idiots by those more given to worldly attitudes: why help others when the principal reason for existence is to favor ourselves? Yet we’re a social species and it seems to me that we all do better when we’re more inter-connected. When we stratify based on wealth or mythology or skin color we isolate ourselves just as much as we isolate those we’re shutting out.

So for me, morality often comes down to random and perhaps futile gestures such as inviting a homeless person to eat lunch together. It means sometimes reaching out even when there’s a risk the overture will be misconstrued. It means not being invested in the outcome but merely focusing on the act itself because it seems the right thing to do.

I like to think there are many others out in the world who’ve arrived at more or less the same conclusions and who are, like me, trying to add a little to the slender store of positives in this world of seemingly unrelenting folly and harm. We may make no difference at all to the great rush of history, but perhaps from time to time we make a little difference to someone here and there, and that’s better than doing nothing at all.

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