First, the cons:
When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, or to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.
You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to number one on the Billboard chart), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.
You waste a lot of time arguing. Indeed, much of your time is spent trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently and asked people to say something about it, many of them argued that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time; that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) Arguing certainly can be effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and gets other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent doing the damn work.
And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you feel a little bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.
You feel guilty. You worry about whether you’re doing it right, whether you should be working on something different, whether you could do better. You become vividly conscious of the ways that you yourself contribute to other people’s suffering: buying products made by exploited labor, banking with banks that exploit the poor, driving cars that spew greenhouse gas. Every time you don’t take action, every time you don’t help, every time you don’t donate money or don’t volunteer time or don’t hit “Share” or “Retweet” on the fundraising letter, you feel bad about it. And every time you do donate or volunteer or spread the word, you worry about whether you could have done it better or whether you could have done more.
You feel helpless. A lot. Once you open yourself up to other people’s suffering, you quickly become aware of just how much of it there is, and how little you personally can do about it. You feel overwhelmed. You are vividly aware of the fact that no matter what you do, no matter how much you work and sacrifice, at the end of your life there will still be a massive amount of suffering in the world. I sometimes think the helplessness is worse than the guilt and that the guilt is a defense mechanism against the helplessness. Feeling like you could have prevented suffering gives you a sense of control—it makes you feel like you can prevent it in the future. As crappy as it is to feel like you could have done something and didn’t, I think it’s sometimes harder to feel like there’s nothing you could have done.
And you never, ever, ever get a break. You never really get a vacation; you never get to retire. When you do go on vacation, you think about the lives of the people who clean your hotel rooms and wait on your tables. You leave generous tips and feel how inadequate even that is. It’s like the red pill in The Matrix: once you’ve swallowed it, you can’t un-swallow it. Once you know about other people’s suffering, you can’t un-know it. You have to care about it, and feel it, and feel guilty about not doing enough about it, and feel helpless over how little you can do about it—for the rest of your life.
Now, the pros:
You get to have a life that matters.
You get to make a difference. You get to have a life that’s larger than just yourself, larger than just your own safety and pleasure. You get to feel powerful, in a good way. You get to feel the ripples of your life expand out into the world. You get to feel like part of history. You get to look back on your life and see how the world is better because you are in it.
You get to feel intimately connected with the world. You get to touch people’s lives, and now and then you get to hear them tell you how. You get to see other people inspired by the work you’re doing, and you get to see them take that inspiration into their own work. You get to be inspired by other people, and you get to take that inspiration into your own work. You get to feel like a link in a chain, like part of something bigger than yourself.
You get an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life?”
You get to avoid so much cognitive dissonance. You get to enjoy the pleasures of your life without that twisting, churning feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you’re ignoring something important. Shutting out the reality of other people’s suffering means—well, shutting out reality. It means lying to yourself; it means building a labyrinth of walls inside your head and your heart, a labyrinth of denial and rationalization that leaves calluses and scars. It means living in a bubble, in a gated community that locks you in as surely as it locks the world out. Letting yourself care about other people’s suffering means you don’t have to do that. It’s true that you feel guilty about not doing enough—but you also get to put your feet up at the end of the day and know that you did something worth doing. And it means that you don’t have to shut the world out. You get to let it all in.
And you get to know some of the best people in the world. When you care deeply about other people’s suffering and when you work to do something about it, you start running into other people who also care and work to change things for the better. And these people are amazing. They are brilliant, imaginative, tough, tender, compassionate (obviously), and hilarious. They will help you out of a jam. They will listen, really listen, to what’s going on with you. They will show you parts of the world you had no idea existed. They will make your world larger, more complex, and more interesting. They will inspire you to be a better person. Sitting around a bar or a café or a dining room table with people who passionately care about the same things you do and who you share a history with, laughing and gossiping and brainstorming and eating take-out and planning the future—there is nothing like it in the world.
It seems like a hard choice—to tune in or tune out. But honestly, it’s not.
I really don’t have a choice at this point. I’ve swallowed the red pill and I can’t un-swallow it; I have knowledge of others’ suffering, and I can’t un-know it. But if I did have the choice, I would make the same one again, every time, without hesitation.