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How to deal with the sight of misery
How do you deal with the sight of poverty, hunger, misfortune? Is sympathy enough? Are donations enough?

I find myself at times really troubled by the misery that I see around me. I am guilt-ridden when I buy more clothes, or ask for more luxury in my life, or even type on my Blackberry. My silly brain thinks twice before I turn the faucet to use water. I think: there are people who are dying of thirst as I squander this resource.

And it kills me when I see my friends, my colleagues and people around me competing for who gets the latest design of Louis Vuitton, or Roberto Cavalli, or any of the superficial brand items that people get crazy about. I try to constantly remind myself of how lucky I am to live in comfort, peace, luxury. But this is also turning into a semi-constant anxiety.

How do you deal with seeing suffering and misfortune? How can we help and sleep comfortably at night? Is it a matter of life style? Is it a mindset? Am I selfish for thinking of alleviating this burden?  
Hi Dalal,

I don’t know if you’ve seen Teen Kanya by Satyajit Ray (I strongly recommend it).
It's comprised of three movies. At the end of the first movie you see the well-to-do hero who wants to give money to his little servant - and there is a long scene of how he calls her, money in hand, and suddenly he understands how he betrayed her (he is on his way to leave the village where she was his only friend) and the money simply stays in his hand, he keeps on walking like in a dream as he realizes how poor he is at that moment. He will never be able to finish what he started, teaching her to read and write and by so doing, giving her a chance for a better life. I think there are many different kinds of poverty in this world, the material one is horrible but is not the only one. One can’t fight it all and one cannot solve all the problems, but it is important to know where and when you can help people through your destiny and not to let this chance slip away.
What an important and difficult question...There are at least two things here which I'll separate in my reply:

1. How to deal with misery?
2. How to deal with excess?

Some remarks about the first: I think one has to remain aware of suffering in the world just as you would keep your eyes open to any other aspect of existence. It it always useful, as much as one can, to look at the world clearly just as it is, to not pretend things aren't there but to acknowledge them and remember them so that one can act as correctly as possible, without sentimentality or fear. Educate yourself by talking to people who work in charity and in humanitarian organizations or political action groups so that you can make sure as much as possible that your day to day life does not unwittingly undermine your principles -- e.g. do basic research to see whether things have been produced in sweatshops, buy from companies whose politics you find reasonable, etc.  Read about the particular social and economic problems in your own city or region and, insofar as possible, support local groups which try to deal productively with the roots of the problems.

Some remarks about about the second:
You mention the "semi-constant anxiety" of having while others do not, or of not stopping everything you are doing to help each person you see. I can very much relate to this and I think that for many of us, women especially, there is often a kind of guilt involved in living which one has to be very careful to avoid. This is a subtle thing, because obviously in small amounts it is simply sensitivity to others. But in a deep level one also has to feel that one can give oneself the necessities of life, allow oneself a certain pleasure, and not constantly apologize for one's existence; because in a deep sense, not giving oneself the necessary resources to fully develop one's potential is fundamental selfishness, and deprives the world of something potentially much larger and greater. I don't mean that you should buy Gucci bags with abandon, but if by occasionally taking wasteful bubble baths and buying reasonably nice clothes and eating meat you free yourself to delight in life and devote your energy to your work, as a result of which you are able to run for local government and personally oversee the development of a microcredit agency to give thousands of poor women a livelihood --- well, then that's more than a fair trade. Mia's been quoting Emerson, who says elsewhere in Nature that

The true charity of Goethe is to be inferred from the account he gave Dr. Eckermann, of the way in which he had spent his fortune. “Each bon-mot of mine has cost a purse of gold. Half a million of my own money, the fortune I inherited, my salary, and the large income derived from my writings for fifty years back, have been expended to instruct me in what I now know
..."

This also resonates, I think, with what Edna has written.  Be open to ways that your own particular gifts in the world can be used for creative problem-solving, but don't be afraid to privilege your own long-term self-development over what might seem like short-term waste, again while acting as ethically as possible.

Looking forwards to others' thoughts --
Thank for your relieving and comforting response Solveig, and your thought-provoking response Edna.

The way that this issue was reconstructed into "misery" and "excess" is interesting. I suppose what I have been looking for was classification. It's okay to get a brand bag every once in a while but it is excess luxury that makes poverty possible, and ignorance that makes misery possible.

The feeling persists, however, and perhaps that's a good thing. I watched an old episode of the Tara Reid show last night where she gets a diamond massage, watching her skin sparkle afterwards with what hardworking poor people in Africa slaved over. I thought it was completely unnecessary, disgusting and idiotic.

Much of this is about knowledge and awareness. But I wonder: would the world really be a better place with that? Or will we always, as humans with tints of greed and selfishness, have misery in our world? Does evolution have anything to do with social hierarchy? Are we destined to battle this forever? 
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Latest Post: August 4, 2009 at 6:17 AM
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