On several churches in England, one vaccination center, and our present-day constructions of our histories and our selves.
Some years ago, nearly ten, I moved to London for a year to study journalism. As I write this now, from my Saturday morning cocoon—burdened by the inflammation of heavy thoughts and the PM2.5 dust that has all week been doing a number on me, in a way grateful for those burdens, but in another merely trying to tunnel my way out of them through these words—it's clearer to me than ever both how fortunate I was to be in London back then and how little I actually belonged there.
When I think now about the privileges I've experienced in my life, that year in London is usually one of the first things that comes to mind. But privilege, a far more complex and nuanced amalgam than we seem willing or able to acknowledge or discuss lately, one that ebbs and flows and even plays host to its own cultures of demons, is not the thread I'm choosing to follow today.
On one unexceptionally gloomy day in London, I visited a humanitarian aid agency, hoping to add to my contacts and build some professional relationships that might be helpful to me in my reporting. The people I met there were kind and decent, but nothing ever came of the meeting. After I left the building, I drifted around a bit, probably wanting to burn off some of the opportunistic and exploitative feelings that often came to me when trying to do things like "add to my contacts and build some professional relationships that might be helpful to me in my reporting."
I didn't get far before I spotted a church. I don't remember why, nor did I probably know then why, but I walked inside. Maybe two or three people were visible to me, scattered about, each seated and silent and alone. I was basically agnostic at the time and remain basically so now. But these were my people, it seemed to me. Sufferers. I didn't actually know that about them, of course. It was just a sense I got. One I don't think I ever intellectualized until now. So who knows what or how much of this recollection is real, and how much has been constructed over time. I know I don't. But I'm going to continue now to do my best, as I still have those tunnels to dig.
The smell of incense was strong and welcoming and warming. As I recall, there was organ music playing, though it may have been a choir. Whichever it was, the sounds were invisible to me and coming from above. In any event, the whole of it felt good and calming, and it had been awhile since anything had felt good or calming to me. So I sat down, and uncharacteristically for me at the time, I stayed seated for what felt like a long time. There was a particular cadence in the room, one that moved slowly and gently and cleansed, healed and loved, and took me with it. I remember seeing a man whom I thought might be homeless. And I remember wanting mercy for him. I remember wanting it so badly I nearly cried. I remember loving him. These words didn't form then. They only just arrived now, by virtue of the fact, I think, that I was present then. I wasn't plotting or scheming or planning or networking. I was just taking a moment, and then having that moment, being there for it. And whatever it was, it's all that was—for a time.
Early one morning some years later, nearly ten, I was reading the news and saw a photo of Salisbury Cathedral in England that gave me pause. I don't spend much time looking with much interest at photos these days. And I almost never take any photos of my own anymore. But this particular photo drew me in, initially, because it looked like a painting. Closer inspection revealed that it is in fact a photo, one of the cathedral, yes, but also one of our present day, our big dilemma, our great condition, with the Covid pandemic front and center and filling the mammoth structure with its own complex meter.
Salisbury was recently turned into a vaccination center. As the vaccines are administered in the 13th-century Gothic building, the vaccinated (and soon-to-be vaccinated) can sit and listen to the organ play. And there is something in the intuitive understanding of the magnitude of this, of all that it encompasses, coupled with the stylized way the photographer, Tom Jamieson, painted his pictures with light, that shoots the kind of sparks that one can get lost in. And "Wouldn't you like to get away?" as those of us with embedded memories of the 1980s and of 1980s American sitcoms will remember being asked repeatedly and perhaps without understanding from that parallel universe we still carry inside us. Or rather: Wouldn't you like to be present in something more beautiful than the things that led you to it? Even if only for a moment?
I'm not going to attempt to describe Jamieson's photos any more than I already have. You can see all of that for yourself. What I will note, however, is that when I look at the photos, I feel love for the people within them, and it extends beyond the frame. Some of that love is my own. But some of it seems more communal, elusive and unexplainable, and not wholly rational, but churning away inside each of us anyway, and spreading itself out through the world in warm measured waves, there for us to enter, or not. But always there.
The other thing that strikes me when I look at the photos is the sense that I'm looking into our future and seeing our past. Our history. This moment in it now. Maybe it's because the photos look almost like Renaissance paintings. In any case, I can't tell if what I'm seeing is accurate. Is that really us in there? Have we earned this compassionate and beneficent depiction of us? Is all the love and equality we talk endlessly about even real, even attainable, or is it just another story we like to tell ourselves, about ourselves, from our alternating planes of bigotry, to appear in our ego's best light, and to get though our days? Will we ever actually be the people we might hope to be remembered as, or are we all just taking selfies for posterity? Our blemishes concealed. Our morality secondary. Our true progress and effectiveness damned.
Brian Leli, February 2021
Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
Our society seems obsessed with the outer state of our fellow humans. This comes at their expense but also at ours. If we claim that the sum of another is what constitutes that person materially—race, resources, physical power—what is it that we’re missing?
This surface-level thinking underpins racism. It reduces a man to his external features or circumstances, and in the words of Baldwin, represents “the denial of the human being, his power, his beauty, his dread.” Even more presciently, Baldwin wrote that “white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
This is a psychological, spiritual assessment of human beings. To transform external, systemic structures that teem with racism, what is needed is for folks to see the whole human being with all of her complexities, idiosyncrasies, and intricacies.
If instead we reinforce a shallow dogma of racial essentialism by describing black and white people in generalizing ways, I fear we will mainly spread alienation that leads to insecurity, the stymieing of fellowship among peers of different races, and an atrophying of the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. A loveless wasteland provides fertile ground for racism to take root.
Chloé Valdary, The Boston Globe, February 2021
June 21, 1994. Kigali, Rwanda. Two months into one of the most horrific genocides the world has ever witnessed, James Orbinski manned a small Red Cross hospital, a tiny wellspring amid a moral wasteland.
The problems in Rwanda began to build up decades before, when the early Belgian colonialists had decreed that, of the native population, the minority Tutsi were racially superior to the more numerous Hutu. Under this regime, the Tutsi assisted the colonial rulers while Hutu were used as forced labor. This situation changed radically in 1959, when the Tutsi monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a Hutu republic and Rwanda became independent of Belgium. But things did not get better. The country’s new leaders imposed dictatorial military rule and harvested the little wealth the country had for their own ends. Many of Rwanda’s Tutsi fled to neighboring countries as refugees, and the country soon became one of the poorest in the world.
As the prosperity of the country declined, the Hutu’s resentment toward the Tutsi grew. As time passed, the extremist ideology known as Hutu Power, explicitly based around racist anti-Tutsi principles, gained popularity. By 1990, Rwanda’s leaders had begun arming Hutu citizens with machetes, razor blades, saws, and scissors; a new radio station had been set up to broadcast propaganda and hate speech; and attacks from the Tutsi refugee army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, were being used to catalyze fear among the Hutu populace. By 1994, anti-Tutsi sentiment reached its zenith. On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president was assassinated. The extremist Hutus blamed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, giving them the perfect opportunity to initiate their long-planned genocide.
By the time Orbinski found himself at that Red Cross hospital, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi had been killed. The UN was stalling, not wanting to admit that a genocide was happening, and had provided almost no support. Only a handful of nonprofit workers remained in the country. Later in his life, Orbinski would become the president of Doctors Without Borders and accept the Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf, but at this time his role was simply to provide care for those who needed it, and with so many casualties, what could he do? He later recalled:
There were so many, and they kept coming. Patients were taped with a 1, 2, or 3 on their foreheads: 1 meant treat now, 2 meant treat within twenty-four hours, and 3 meant irretrievable. The 3s were moved to the small hill by the roadside opposite the emergency room and left to die in as much comfort as could be mustered for them. They were covered with blankets to stay warm and given water and whatever morphine we had. The 1s were carried by stretcher to the emergency room or to the entrance area around it. The 2s were placed in groups behind the 1s.
I cannot comprehend what it was like for James Orbinski to see so many in pain at once and know he could help so few of them. I can only be thankful that I will never witness suffering of that magnitude. I imagine you feel the same.
However, there is a way in which Orbinski’s situation is similar to ours. With so many casualties coming in, Orbinski knew he could not save everyone, and that meant he had to make tough choices: whom did he save, and whom did he leave to die? Not all could be helped, so he prioritized and engaged in triage. If it were not for that cold, calculating, yet utterly necessary allocation of 1s, 2s, and 3s, how many more lives would have been lost? If he had made no choice—if he had put his hands in the air and claimed defeat, or if he had simply tried to treat whoever came in first—he would have made the worst choice of all.
The reality of our world is such that, if we want to make the world a better place, we must make choices similar to those of Orbinski.
Suppose you have money you want to donate to charity. If you donate to Haiti earthquake relief, you help disaster victims. That means you have less money to fund antiretrovirals to fight HIV in Uganda, or to help the homeless in your hometown. As a result of your choices, someone is made better off and someone else is not. Confronted with the choice, you might be inclined to give to all these causes: make more room in your budget for increased charitable giving or divide your donation among several causes. But your time and money are limited and you cannot solve all the problems in the world. This means you need to make some hard decisions: Whom do you choose to help?
Exactly the same problem arises for our use of time. If you have a spare couple of hours per week that you’re happy to dedicate to helping others, how should you use them? Should you work at a soup kitchen? Join a mentorship program for troubled youth? Organize fund-raisers for your favorite charity? Again, there are far too many problems in the world and not enough time to solve them all. We need to prioritize.
Orbinski’s situation was more salient than ours, since the potential beneficiaries were there in front of him, crying out for help. The fact that he had to make a choice, and that not choosing would itself be a decision, was inescapable. That we are not directly confronted with the competing beneficiaries of our charitable efforts and donations may lead us to take our situation less seriously than we would if we were in Orbinski’s shoes, but it makes the situation no less real. There are literally billions of potential recipients of our help. Each one is a worthy beneficiary, someone who has real problems and whose life could be made better by our actions. We therefore need to make decisions about whom we choose to help, because failure to decide is the worst decision of all.
Effective altruism, at its core, is about confronting Orbinski’s dilemma and trying our best to make hard trade-offs. Of all the ways in which we could make the world a better place, which will do the most good? Which problems should we tackle immediately, and which should we leave for another time? Valuing one action over another is difficult both psychologically and practically, but it is not impossible. In order to make comparisons between actions, we need to ask: How many people benefit, and by how much? This is the first key question of effective altruism.
William MacAskill, Doing Good Better
The worst thing a business or school can do is alienate its employees or students by treating people as political abstractions and making them feel insecure. Instead we ought to be asking ourselves how to create conditions that lead everyone to flourish. What is needed is an antiracism training rooted in a framework of abundance, not a framework of scarcity that puts white people into the reductive category of oppressor and black people into the equally reductive category of oppressed.
I believe the key to fostering spaces of diversity and inclusion is to teach people how to make peace with their human condition. This requires a spiritual practice that will help people wrestle with flaws, vulnerability, fear, mortality, and the infinite gifts that human beings bring to bear in the world. It means helping people think in terms of complexity instead of caricature. It means helping people develop a capacity for empathy and compassion for both themselves and their neighbors.
Chloé Valdary, The Boston Globe, February 2021
Tom Jamieson for The New York Times