An experience this week suggested to me that, far from alienating me from suffering closer to home, the ideas of Effective Altruism have an important interplay with the way I respond to those in need who I encounter in my everyday life.
Somebody somewhat-near-me* suffered an incredible tragedy this week, with the loss of a child who was only a few months old. Her boy suffered congenital heart disease. He had been lucky to be born in a country where his condition was recognised at birth, and where he could be treated by experts. He and his family were lucky to live in a country with universal health care, so that they were not forced to decide between open heart surgery for a child and the shelter or feeding of the rest of their family. But despite luck and expertise his life was cut very short.
It’s hard to comprehend the suffering of his parents. I can’t encompass it. The urge to ‘do something’ is swift and strong. After some thought I decided to do the only useful thing I could think of: since I don’t know them well enough to be a big emotional support, I prepared a few nourishing meals and a cake, and made a doorstop drop of food and beer.
I did this because I thought it would help them a tiny bit not to have to put a meal together, and because I hoped it would help them feel not alone. I did this because it helped me to feel that by rallying in someone’s distress I was helping hold back the sense of despair that confronted us in the wake of such a loss.
When I reflected today though, I realised that these same motivations are an important part of why I continue supporting charities like AMF and SCI. As Julia Wise writes, those other mothers love their babies just as hard. Those babies have the same enchanting smiles of promise that my baby flashes in the morning, and their deaths are just as awful as this boy's passing. And for a relatively small sum I can help - not just to take the edge off a day of grief for that other mother, but to keep her baby alive.
For me, it strengthens and fosters my compassion – my literal feeling with – families far away, to offer support and care to those who are physically close to me. There is no dissonance about it: the feelings come from the same place.
*We are in a large music group together, and also are both part of a small online parents group started by a mutual friend.