Somebody asked me what I thought about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He said, “do we have a duty to pitch in whatever we can to help humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces, to help save lives that might be destroyed? Speaking generally of African countries where governments have so much ability to do terrible things, is this an inescapable type of situation that will always repeat itself? Do you think genocide will ever be a thing of the past? Do the UN and other intervening countries do enough to make this a top priority? Just curious to see what is the Buddhist stance on this sort of thing, or your stance. When one becomes aware of something like this going on.”
I hear questions like this a lot. Of course big tragedies in far away places are important. It’s very sad when things like this happen. And, of course, we have some duty to try and be of service. But, unfortunately there is very little we can do for people so far away.
Modern communications systems have brought news from incredibly distant places right into our homes. Modern transportation systems have made places that were once almost inaccessible seem very close. In a sense the world is getting smaller. But in another sense it’s just as big as it ever was.
One of these days we’ll establish communications with intelligent creatures on other planets. After the excitement has worn off a bit, we’ll start noticing that they have problems too. Eventually there’ll be people on Earth wringing their hands over the famine on Regizvon Centurus VII. It’ll be important in social circles to express true concern for the plight of the suffering Glompnells on Zeta Reticuli. Which isn’t meant to trivialize the situation in Darfur. Just to say that it’s natural to want to help those who suffer, no matter where they are. And that it can be socially advantageous to express concern for whatever it’s currently trendy to be concerned about.
The best thing you can do to be of service to people in terrible situations in far off places is to attend to your part of the world as carefully as possible.
I saw someone posted a response to my last article saying that he feared that if people were all like me no one would have the passionate commitment needed to take care of the world’s problems. But I’m not so sure passion is what’s called for. Do you need to feel passionate commitment in order to sweep your floor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to say hello to your neighbor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to separate your recyclables?
Big problems in far away places aren’t nearly as critical as tiny problems right under your nose or behind your eyes.
You can attend to the big problems of the world best when you take care of these small things. As far as Darfur and Baghdad and Pyongyang and everywhere else where people live tragic lives, you can do a little. You can vote. You can donate money. You can write your congressperson, run a marathon for a good cause, and so on and on. It’s fine to do these good things. Just be aware that you can never fix these far away tragedies, much as you’d like to. As Dogen said, “Flowers fall though we love them and weeds grow though we hate them.”
It’s not that there is anything at all wrong with making efforts to help out people far away in desperate situations. But far too often such efforts are an excuse to ignore the smaller problems much closer, the ones where we really can do some real good. It’s a way of saying that Big Problems — the ones everyone can agree are Big Problems cuz they’re on TV and stuff –are important, but little ones can be ignored. Subconsciously we know we can’t fix what’s too removed from our immediate surroundings. By making those far away things the most important matters we’re in danger of giving ourselves an excuse to ignore what’s right near by.
It’s also a way of saying that the biggest problems are “out there,” not “in here.” When you come to see that the real source of every evil in the world is you and you alone, your priorities have to change radically. Maybe we need more passionate commitment to the problems within ourselves. There are burning issues of international and historical importance that you must take care of right this very second and they are not thousands of miles away. They are right here. It’s only when you attend to these matters very close that you can do anything about the ones that are far away.
I’m gonna go see Borat now. I’ll give you a report later.