What does the world need?
I've been asking myself this question a lot lately, trying to figure out how I might live my life in a way that would maximize the good that I bring into the world. I believe that love is at the core of everything that is meaningful, and that we are given life so that we might learn about love: to learn how to love, to learn to experience love, and, in so doing, to find joy in living. However, it's difficult to know how this belief can be translated into my life. I know it's important to bring love and joy into the world; however, I wonder how much love is enough. How do I know when I'm doing enough?
Sometimes I'm just so overwhelmed by the world's neediness. There is so much need. There are people who are starving, who are afraid for their lives, who are sick and need medical assistance. There are children--sweet, innocent, precious children-- who have suffered unspeakable horrors, sometimes at the hands of those they rely on for safety and love. There are people who are lonely and isolated. There are others who are lost in a pit of depression and sadness. Many feel overburdened and insufficient. There are some who have sufficient food, shelter, and company-- but who feel still empty, hollow, lacking in something. There are needs, needs, needs, needs, and I'm not sure which ones should be prioritized. How do you measure an act of goodness? Is it better to sponsor an orphan or support AIDS research? Is it more moral to spend your time composing a symphony or building a school in Afghanistan? How much time can I spend on activities that I personally find interesting or pleasurable without regard for improving the well-being of others? Shouldn't there be some sort of goodness-o-meter into which you can describe an act and it will give you a moral grade? "Practicing the piano for personal pleasure...C+." "Making a donation of hard-earned money to the homeless shelter....B." "Gossiping with the neighbor....D-." Then you could go throughout your day with confidence, selecting "A+" activities only and knowing that you were doing everything you could to make the world a better place.
But it's hard to know the far-reaching effects of the things we do, and sometimes an act of love isn't as overt as volunteering at the soup kitchen or tutoring a kid in spelling. I believe that math, engineering, invention, philosophy, science, and art can all be used to lift lives, increase happiness, and create love.
For example, my life has been changed in meaningful ways by art....a series of paintings by Pilar Pobil, a song by Live, a novel by Toni Morrison. But how important is it that my life be improved on a personal level by art when there are children who don't have enough to eat? There are people who have needs on all the levels of need, but is it ethical to pursue self-actualization when some people haven't even stabilized sources of their basic physiological needs? Should Beethoven have dedicated his time and energy to helping little children, rather than lost in practice or scribbling away madly at musical manuscripts? Has his music moved enough lives to compensate for the deaths of the little ones he could have saved? And sure, creating great art is one thing...but what about producing mediocre entertainment? Is that a waste of life? Or is there a need for mediocre entertainment? A need that should be prioritized over visiting your widowed neighbor?
And where do I prioritize my own happiness? Sometimes it feels like I seek after my own happiness and pleasure at the expense of others' well-being. Is it right that Abe and I spend eighty dollars a month on eating out when we could eat at home and donate the extra money to the Make a Smile foundation? Is it okay to be spending time posting on my blog when I could be writing a grant proposal to get funds for the Domestic Violence center?
Is everyone's happiness of infinite importance? If you've made yourself happy and met all your own needs, is that enough? Or if you've worked to serve and care for your immediate family members, is that enough? If you've watched over a needy neighbor, have you done enough? If you donated fifty dollars a month to the Perpetual Education fund, is the world sufficiently better for your presence? What if you spend your whole life working to build up a business empire and then, upon your death, use your fortune to create foundations to improve education for youth in your own country? Is that sufficient? What if you raise two healthy, productive children who will go on to do the same thing? Was your existence worthwhile? What if you just smiled at everyone you saw? What if you just smiled at half the people you saw? What if you half-smiled at some people in the grocery store once?
Howard Thurman famously said, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Which is nice. But, I dunno, shoveling crap out of my parent's neighbor's house didn't make me feel particularly alive, but it made her home a better place for a while. Visiting my lonely uncle doesn't make me feel vibrant, but he enjoys the company. I don't get a particular thrill of joy from making my little boys breakfast every morning, but I think it's good for them and for our family.
Is there really enough diversity in the world that if everyone just did what made them "come alive," that there would be opportunities for every need to be met?