[Creative Writing Contest] [Fiction] The One Who Walked Sanctum

by Miranda_Zhang14 min read27th Oct 2021No comments

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Creative Writing Contest
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Before the birds started their morning trills, the tinkling began. Stirred by an early Spring breeze, the windchimes outside Faven's window rung with melodic cheer. It's Choosing Day!.

Choosing Day is an annual custom in Faven's city. Upon completing high school, some received shiny gifts; some received surprise parties and feasts of their favorite foods; some received nothing at all. In Sanctum, all graduates experience Choosing Day: a day-long (officially) festival where you pick your first cause. See, everyone in Sanctum is passionate about doing good. It might be the natural result of having all your basic needs met or simply the effect of being surrounded by people who, genuinely, just want to make a positive impact in the world—whatever it is, the residents of Sanctum are the kindest you will ever meet.

As Choosing Day dawns, Faven remembers all those who have helped her make it to this day. Her parents, who put her first for eighteen years and never skipped even one evening with her. The hospital administrators who supported her parents and ensured they would always come home on time. Their neighbors, who watched over her when she was young and kept her company when she was older. The owner of the stall opposite their house, who gave her free coffee on weeks when she had exams. The random passerbys who always stopped when she—clumsy child—stumbled on a loose pebble and dropped her papers, or bought her bandages when she scraped her knee, or offered a good-morning smile on her way to school. On Choosing Day, Faven carries with her the compassion and cheer of all those in her neighborhood.

Choosing Day was not born out of a desire to impose do-gooding upon Sanctum but rather, created to help all the children who already wanted to do good—but lacked guidance. To support these children, the leaders of Sanctum decided to host a day devoted to inspiring the children to identify a cause they might be able to do good with. On Choosing Day there are discussions on why a cause might be especially important; panels of professionals who have all been through Choosing Day and picked the career they think lets them contribute the most to the world; keynote speakers with tales of why they feel fulfilled by what they've chosen. And of course, there is cheer. Everything on Choosing Day inspires cheer, from the proud parents to the tinkling of windchimes to the excitement everyone has about their cause.

At the end of Choosing Day, most of Sanctum's graduates will have figured out what they are passionate about: running a group home for orphans, perhaps, or building spaceship parts to advance humankind's spacefaring ambitions. Faven, having looked forward to Choosing Day her whole life, wants to learn about everything!

Her parents hope that she will work on cancer research. There is a history of stomach cancer in her family: her great-grandfather, her grandfather, and most recently, her uncle—her mother's best friend and brother. They can't bear to think of losing yet another loved one to cancer. And if Faven thinks about her father coming down with—no, no. No. The cause of stomach cancer is near and dear to her family, and so Faven knows to pay special attention to the medics on Choosing Day.

When Faven goes to the medical professions panel, she finds that stories like hers aren't uncommon: there is a nurse who speaks of her father with dementia; a surgeon whose brother lives with severe arrhythmia; a laboratory researcher who was driven to solve sickle cell disease, which they saw far too often in Black, lower-income communities. Her heart aches with each story, for Faven feels their pain as her own. Growing up, she had always been hypersensitive to others' feelings, such that she had to remove herself from situations of great grief (like funerals) to prevent herself from completely collapsing under the weight of everyone's sadness. Hyperempathy, the doctors called it. On this day, though, Faven is buoyed by the gratitude of the medics' families and the warm glow that surrounds all on Choosing Day, and so she pulls through without so much as a teary eye.

And yet, Faven can't help but wonder: does everyone in her neighborhood have a story like theirs? Faven sees no reason to think that their families were especially prone to tragedy. After all, everyone in her neighborhood takes care of each other, so to think that their families are uniquely tragic would mean really having lost the genetic lottery—which didn't strike Faven as likely.

Then what of those who live outside her neighborhood? Surely life isn't so different elsewhere in Sanctum: didn't families there lose loved ones to cancer and dementia, too? Or perhaps different diseases are more common. Still, Faven wouldn't wish the kind of suffering her mother went through on anyone. Nobody should have to go through that.

These thoughts—on Choosing Day!—trouble Faven. What if she chose to work on stomach cancer when other diseases were more common? Her family cares deeply about cancer because they have lost so much to it, which makes sense to Faven, but so do the stories of all those medics. Why does it matter that this was her family's tragedy as opposed to some other family? If everyone matters equally—as everyone in Sanctum believes—shouldn't she want to prevent tragedy happening from anyone? And if so, Faven doesn't know if becoming a stomach cancer researcher is the best way to do so. It might be, but she doesn't think she knows enough to choose yet.

Faven visits panel after panel, but only finds more stories of personal loss and love turned into passion. Each time, she feels their stories as if they are her own, and she thinks that, yes, she would have chosen the way they did. Indeed, it seems like everyone who goes through Choosing Day ends up picking something they have a personal connection with. It keeps them motivated and it's fulfilling to be able to make progress on something that has so deeply impacted the lives of their loved ones. But Faven can't shake the thought that, if there were so many things that affected the lives of different people, how could she justify choosing only the cause she and her loved ones cared most about?

And so Faven does what she has always done and turns to her family. As the afternoon sun blazes, she finds shelter at home and asks her ma if there is anyone in her neighborhood that chose something they didn't have personal experience with. Her ma furrows her brow.

"No ... No, Faven, I don't think so." Her ma pauses, thinks some more, and then shrugs. "Can't think of anyone right now, my love. But why do you ask?"

Faven tries to find the words. How to put this... "It just—I just, listening to everyone's own stories about why they chose what they chose, it reminded me of what you and da and our family went through..."

Her ma looks at Faven's face, notices the slight redness in her eyes and pulls her close. "Oh, my love, my sweet sweet girl ... I should have warned you. I hope today hasn't been too painful?"

Faven shakes her head, "No, ma, that's not why." She rests her head on her ma's chest, listening to the slow steady heartbeat of the woman who's always been there for her. The woman who, rightly so, wanted her to become a cancer researcher. "It's just that ... If everyone has experienced tragedy, what makes it right for me to focus on my own?" Faven looks up at her ma's face, hoping that this isn't coming out all wrong. "What if I could be helping more people, preventing more tragedy, by doing something other than what I—what we—know?"

Her ma holds her gaze for a few seconds, and Faven bites her lip. What if her ma had taken it the wrong way? What if her ma thought that she didn't care about her family? Faven loved them, she did, but she could tell that others loved their families just as hard. And that made Choosing hard.

"You've always been so empathetic." Her ma lets out a sigh and smiles at Faven, the corner of her eyes crinkling. She starts stroking Faven's hair, bringing Faven back to her childhood years when her ma would comfort her after she had accidentally come across a dying animal or watched a documentary about a past tragedy. Her ma always knew just how to comfort her. "In our neighborhood, I think we are just drawn to what we know. It feels right to focus on what has so troubled us in the past, like the next chapter of a story." Her ma tucks a strand of hair behind Faven's ear. "You know how we take care of our own, here. Everyone is so good and kind to each other because in this neighborhood, everyone is family. So, when Choosing Day comes, it makes sense to pick what one's own family cares most about. Because that's what we have to fight for." Her ma rests her head on her hand, pensive. "But there are other neighborhoods in Sanctum, and they say Choosing Day happens everywhere in the city, so..."

Faven guesses, "Maybe people have different stories outside of our neighborhood?"

Her ma nods, smiling. "Right! I'll be straight with you, I'm not sure why you'd choose to contribute to something you don't have a personal connection with or how that counts as doing good, but..." Her ma stops and touches the side of Faven's face, feather-light. Her hand is warm and dry and stabilizing, convincing Faven that her ma doesn't think she's heartless for what she said. "But you're a special one, Faven, and maybe you'll show me why those people think they do good. Maybe they all feel like you can." Her ma hugs Faven tight and Faven can't tell if the gratitude is hers or her ma's, but her heart is awash with gratitude and relief and fullness. She doesn't think I'm crazy.

So Faven ventures out of her neighborhood, determined to make the most of what's left of Choosing Day. The first neighborhood she sees is all chrome and glass, gleaming in the afternoon sun. She finds people scattered all over, taking calls in cafes or parks or (she assumes) offices. In this neighborhood, Choosing Day involves communicating with people far away, people not even in Sanctum, to find out what problems they are facing and choose one. She is lucky enough to find someone awaiting their next call, who explains this neighborhood's philosophy.

"We just think, why should it matter whether someone lives in this neighborhood or elsewhere? We are all humans so we can all feel the same things—happiness, pain, sadness... But at least we know that, in Sanctum, everyone cares about each other. Other places aren't quite so lucky, so what better way to do good than help people outside Sanctum?"

Faven follows the logic easily. It's easy for her to imagine protecting people outside Sanctum—all she has do to is think about how much she wants to protect people from her neighborhood, and then imagine that there are kind people like that all over whom she hasn't met. But Faven also knows that not everyone feels that way. Folk from her neighborhood, for example, probably don't share that sentiment. 

o she asks, "But ... Yes, I agree, but ... How can you care about a stranger more than your own family?"

The resident she is talking to looks up at Faven, giving her a soft smile. "I don't. And that's why it's so important that that's what I think about on Choosing Day. I know that I should care about people I can't see just as much as people I can, but I don't feel that in here." The resident taps right above their heart. "Doesn't mean it's not important, though."

Exhilarated by learning about this new approach to Choosing Day, Faven thanks the resident and moves on. The next neighborhood she visits is quiet, primarily made up of towering apartment complexes but—strangely—almost nobody out on the streets. It turns out that, everyone celebrates Choosing Day in the pastures right outside the residential area. In the pastures, there is green grass and fresh air and a running stream, making it an ideal home for all sorts of animals. For in this neighborhood, Faven finds, they really care about animals.

"Surely, if humans want to reduce suffering and animals can suffer, then animals should matter too in our choices." The boy she is talking to shrugs. "It sounds like we're not that different from your neighborhood. We're all like one big family here, except that family extends to nonhumans too."

**Faven hasn't ever thought that way but it seems fair enough to her. Animals can suffer from debilitating diseases too, just like humans. If there are more animals than there are humans in the world, perhaps working on animal diseases could lead to doing more good than working on human disease? She isn't sure, but she's already glad that she's finding new neighborhoods with new ways of thinking.

In the next neighborhood, Faven finds that most everyone thinks about the long future. It doesn't quite make sense to her, at first, but—just as before—once they explain, it seems intuitive.

"Well, if we think that location shouldn't matter when thinking about whose suffering is important, then why should temporal location? We happen to be born in this time, which means we'll never get to meet beings born thousands of years later, but that doesn't mean those beings aren't important. And there are things we can do to make their lives better or, more importantly, much worse. So here, we Choose in a way to protect those future generations."

As the sun sets, Faven feels like she's only just beginning to explore all her choices. She can't go back yet! She doesn't know what to Choose! Back home, Faven knows that people care about their pets and their children, but that seems like a different kind of relationship than is experienced in these neighborhoods. Everyone she's met seems to care just as deeply about each other and doing good as folk from her neighborhood. But they also happen to have exciting new perspectives on what Choosing means.

Faven decides she isn't ready to go back home and Choose yet. She calls her ma and describes all she's learned in the past few hours.

"In one neighborhood, they think everyone all over the world is equally important, so they try to help people outside Sanctum—people who are less well-off than us. What they do each year changes, depending on what the world outside is like. In another, they care about animals just as much as they do each other—which is to say, a lot! So, on Choosing Day, that neighborhood often produces animal welfare researchers, ecologists, and entrepreneurs, all hoping to identify new ways to improve the lives of animals. And then, this other neighborhood is all about Choosing to protect lives in the future, like people and animals that haven't even been born yet. It's kind of crazy!"

Faven laughs and her ma laughs, too, sharing in her mix of bewilderment and glee. "Do you know what you want to Choose now, my love?"

Shaking her head, Faven breaks the news. "No, ma, I think ... I think I'll have to stay with these neighborhoods a while. Really try to learn about what they Choose and why, because I don't know what I want to Choose yet." Faven gives her ma a nervous smile. "Ma, everyone here is just as kind as back home. People care about each other like we do, but that's what drives them to Choose to care about people outside of their neighborhood."

Her ma furrows her brow. "Faven..."

Faven holds her breath.

"Okay. Sure. I'm still not sure why these people Choose the way they do, but I'm sure you'll find out. And then maybe you can tell me why these people are so crazy, huh?"

Faven laughs, relieved. "Thank you! Thank you, ma, I love you. But, you know, these people aren't crazy. They just feel a lot—"

Her ma smiles. "Like you, Faven. They feel like you do."



If we all had Faven's hyperempathy, maybe the world would be different—better, more equal, less filled with tragedy. Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. So instead we normal humans must settle for radical empathy: using reason to remind ourselves that what we feel (joy and pain and love and sadness) isn't unique to us, and so if we believe that others matter just as much as we and our loved ones do, then we might have to look beyond just what we know.


This is what drives effective altruism, a movement and intellectual project that essentially applies radical empathy to find ways to solve the world's biggest problems. It's kind of like a lifelong Choosing Day (especially so with 80,000 hours, a career guidance organization)! To learn how to apply radical empathy in your life, I recommend starting here to learn about effective altruism.

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