Why I mourn for Mary Travis, lament for Mike Brown, and donate to African children I’ll never know

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I believe I speak for most of us in saying that this last week has been wrecked by emotional havoc. Mary Travis – a Tulane sophomore and acquaintance of mine – took her life this past weekend to the shock and horror of those who knew her, and the Tulane community at large. Mary was a light and joy to everyone she met, with a sweet and bubbly demeanor that undoubtedly masked deep, emotional turmoil. Her death, one of a tragic four this semester, has reminded us all of our personal mortality and the importance of looking after the people we love.

So too have we been affected by the wrongful murder of Mike Brown, a young man who, like many before him, lost his life in the face of a legacy of racial injustice. The recent failure to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson solidifies our notions that what many think is our recent past is actually our recent present. His friend and witness in death, Dorian Johnson – as well as his parents, neighbors, and all of us who are willing to open our eyes – can be nothing but in grief and outrage at his undeserved fate.

I can’t claim to know the first thing about either experience. I’ve been blessed with a life where I don’t face internal or external oppression, and am just as thankful every day for my good fortune as I am distraught by the misfortunes others must endure. Only utter naivety would have me claiming that I’ve earned my sense of wellbeing or position of privilege, or that Mary or Mike in some way deserved their lack.

It is in the midst of these events that it is easy to feel defeated and hopeless. Powerless. Frustrated. Overwhelmed by the injustice of it all, often to the point of paralysis. I could spend the rest of my life doing nothing but reaching out to my loved ones and cultivating a society of support, but someone, somewhere, equally as important and valuable and worthy of life, will take their life as Mary did to escape life itself. I could spend the rest of my life marching in the streets, striving for recognition and legal reform and fighting tooth and nail for the safety of innocents, but someone, somewhere, equally as important and valuable and worthy of life, will befall a fate as Mike did in the hands of a system that was against him from the outset. And in reading the news I could be driven to do the same for the civilians in Syria whose livelihoods have fallen prey to Islamic extremists, or the Ebola victims in Sierra Leone whose societies are torn apart by pain and fear. It is so easy to become impassioned about the injustices of the world, yet so difficult to bring about change. Ignorance may allow for personal bliss but at the cost of the neglected misery of others. Such is the blessing and the curse of compassion.

But these problems are too important for paralysis. As awareness makes our foundation shake apart and our structures collapse around us, it often feels like we can do little more than try to fend for ourselves and those closest to us, and hope in vain that everyone else makes it out safe. But with lives and livelihoods at stake whichever way we turn, we have to make choices. Tough, disgusting, ugly choices, where we prioritize the well-being of someone over the well-being of someone else because… we just can’t do it all.

So we partake in social cause triage. We can try to work our way through the ailments, from those closest to us outward, to make a change that’s clear and hits close to home. Yet with so many conditions to treat and our arbitrary placement in this global ward, we may be missing problems for which we could accomplish so much more with our limited time or money. In looking around, it’s the gaping wounds and horrific illnesses – the natural disasters or wars – that catch our attention first, and to which we are prone to be drawn. But these problems may be insurmountable with our limited resources, or, more likely, have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention from others. With so many people in need of help yet so few resources, our criteria for where to focus our efforts must be strategic, based on something other than locality or size.

At the end of the day, do we really care about the cause of one’s death or pain in life? Suicide, slaughter, or suffering by any other means are just that: means, by which such suffering is manifested. What we’re truly torn apart by is universal: Powerlessness. Frustration. The overwhelming injustice of it all. The pain local family and friends feel when tragedy strikes is just as real as that felt by family and friends in Syria or Sierra Leone. With the power to help people in New Guinea or Nairobi as readily as I can help those in New Orleans, people around the world are as much my neighbors as those around the corner.

The difference between one cause or another, then, is the impact we can have on each problem, the amount of people we can help and the extent to which we can help them. If my heart truly cares about mitigating the most suffering – regardless of the bearer, location, or way it manifests – then this triage will lead me to put my efforts where they can do the most good. No one can know for sure where that is, how exactly to turn these subjective experiences and complex solutions into an objective comparison, but we damn well better try.

From the painstaking efforts people have taken thus far in an attempt to prioritize, it seems that helping those vulnerable to malaria, neglected tropical diseases, and malnutrition is where we can do the most good. These people, too, face internal and external oppression, pitted against circumstances out of their control. They, too, feel powerless, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I know that, just as with suicide and slaughter, I could spend the rest of my life improving development efforts and donating every penny I have to children in Africa and there will still be millions I’ve failed to help. But I will make a difference, and not just any difference but the largest difference I can with what resources I have. I may not help everyone but I will help as many people as possible and to the greatest extent possible, letting my head direct my heart rather than the other way around. While we may be wrecked by emotional havoc we cannot afford to let that overwhelm us, but instead drive us toward a better world.

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