How much do you care?

This morning there was a 7-alarm fire in Somerville. The Somerville Patch estimated 45 displaced with 8 homes damaged.

I saw the story on the news before I left the house. I saw the helicopters as I headed to the gym. Everyone at the gym was talking about it. I smelled the smoke as I walked to work.

When I saw that the good folks over at the Somerville Homeless Coalition were collecting donations to support people displaced from this and other fires, I felt the need to donate. To support these neighbors I’d never met.

And if you feel the same need, go ahead and donate. The purpose of this post is not to dissuade you otherwise.

But my impulse to support people whom I felt connected to, even though I’m not (?), made me think back to one of the readings from the Summer Institute – a chapter from Peter Singer’s One World.

Singer points to a common dissonance of reasoning: proclaiming that all human life is equally precious, yet feeling a stronger obligation to some people over others.

While he logically ticked through the partiality people feel towards their family, friends, neighbors, countrymen, etc., proclaiming some okay and others unfounded, I found the dissonance of the question still resonating.

His ultimate point – that everyone should donate 1% of their annual income to the world’s poorest citizens – doesn’t strike the same nerve that the neighborhood fire stuck this morning.

My immediate response to the dissonance is one of efficiency and impact – I am confident that the Somerville donation will make a significant impact, while I feel less confident about the impact of an international donation. While that logistical concern may be well founded, it feels hollow in comparison to my genuine reactions.

My next response is one of capacity – I could give up everything I have and still not fix the terrible, global inequality or make a dent in global poverty.

That feels more authentically close to my concern – when I start to think about the world’s problems on this scale, my mind quickly spirals out of control. I can’t figure out where the line is – how much should I reasonably give? What low level of giving makes me a terrible person?

Singer’s 1% suggestion is meant to alleviate this anxiety, but the arbitrariness of that number leaves me empty.

It also seems to come from a wildly different understanding of the cost of living.

But it does make me think.

Maybe the amount doesn’t matter so much. Maybe it is just arbitrary. But maybe we should all do just a little bit more to make the world more equitable.

Support those in your community and support those abroad.

But do what you can to do just a little bit more.

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