Bad Things Are Happening to People Who Aren’t Us, So Why Are We So Distracted

Logan: Mike, I’m pretty disappointed in my reaction to this storm over the past few days. Nothing Bad Happened to Me at All, but I’ve basically just been pretty much useless since Sunday. Today I had to scramble to find internet after mine went out, but once I found a place, I just … cannot do anything.

Mike: Well, I think it can be very easy to feel helpless after a big natural disaster like this.

Logan: Yeah, I’ve talked to friends who are “working from home” and they’ve described similar levels of un-productivity. And we’re all totally fine! I guess what’s hard to fathom is that while we’re okay, just blocks or neighborhoods or a borough away, things are totally different. But … it’s always like that! There are always people in crisis just down the street. Why does this feel so different then?

Mike: I was talking to our friend Ester about it, and she describes it as “survivor’s guilt.” We got out of this relatively unscathed, so now what? She just had a baby, but she’s been looking for a place near her Brooklyn apartment to donate blood. I can work at home fine, and I can make myself focus if need be, but I’ve been thinking about how I’d much rather be hitting the streets and helping out than posting blog updates. That’s why I put myself on all those volunteer lists. It’s almost selfish, in a way. Being able to go out there would make me happy.

Logan: In 2005, when Katrina happened, I was living in Los Angeles. I’d just gotten out of college, and I was working retail and an unpaid internship and having that WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE ennui that lasted for … years. Anyway. I became obsessed with Katrina, and I wanted to go there so badly, to do … something. I mean, this is very related to my years-long pseudo plans to just move to some developing country and do … something. Help … somehow. I was planning on driving down. It was such a dumb plan. And I told my dad and he was like, what skills are you going to bring? There is nothing that you can do down there that someone who isn’t there can’t already do. You would just be another mouth to feed in a disaster area.

And he was totally right. I had nothing to offer. After that I became obsessed with applying to nursing school for awhile. That didn’t happen … obviously. Anyway, it’s just very humbling to realize you have no actual skills and you can’t actually help people in need, not really. And I still don’t.

Mike: But, I think you can still help out with limited skills. Giving blood is just finding a donation location and letting them poke at you. I was on the phone with the New York Public Advocate office today. They’re organizing volunteers by borough for various things. When they called me, they just said they got my information and thanked me for registering, and I said, “Well, do you have anything for me to do?” And they said, “Not at the moment. But, yes, in the coming days and weeks ahead, we may need you to help clean parks, or go door to door with important information for local business owners, or check up on neighbors.” I think just having the willingness to help is useful, especially when help is limited in areas, because nobody can really get anywhere right now. Does that encourage you to volunteer?

Logan: Not really. Volunteering, helping others is something I think about a lot and don’t do anything about. There are thousands of people in this city living in dire straits everyday. It feels kind of … I don’t know, disingenuous to know that and see that and not do anything, and then now be like, THIS HURRICANE HAPPENED I MUST HELP. People are in crisis everyday, and I don’t do anything. Why now? I don’t want to pick up a few branches and pat myself on the back for it.

Mike: So my question for you then is if you feel like my desire to hit the streets right now is disingenuous?

Logan: NOO. NO. I just meant that for me. I’m pretty negative about my own motivations. There is some self-loathing going on here, for sure.

Mike: I mean, this is what we do when disaster strikes, right? We come together as a community? And I’ve been very warmed by that—by seeing so many people willing to lend a hand, or at least offer friends in the city a place to go where there is electricity and a hot shower. I feel lucky to be part of this community.

And, well, you’re being honest. Not everyone wants to clean a park right now, and that’s the truth. And there are probably people who see my desire to help as disingenuous. But I really do want to help. What do you want to do?

Logan: What I’d like to do is buy 100 pizzas and have them delivered to a shelter. But I can’t afford that. So instead I’m just sitting here.

Mike: I just got a call from the Public Advocate’s office asking me if I can do a shift tomorrow evening serving food to homeless people in a mobile truck. I said yes. It’ll be the least I can do.

Logan: Oh, good. That’s great.



This topic—helping our fellow humans in times of crisis and not—really deserves more time/thought/opportunity for NUANCE than a ten-minute gchat at the end of a long day. My pizza comment was totally flippant, and is in want of SOME CONTEXT. So, a bit: I don’t have the emotional energy to take on anyone else’s problems (or joys) right now. This has been true in my life for some time—there have been long periods when I’ve spent all of my emotional energy on others. So yes, I want to help, of course I want to help. I want to, I’d like to, but for now, it’s all I can to do the small things I have to do in my own life. It’s a hard-learned lesson that I keep having to learn again and again: Take care of yourself first, help others when you can after. Donating money (or pizzas) is a way to help without having to get emotionally involved. Selfish, yes. But for me, now, necessary. (I’m imagining here the argument that this is bullshit, and that I should be able to lend my body and time without getting all bent out of shape. It has been my experience that I can’t actually do that.)  OKAY LOGAN OUT.


23 Comments / Post A Comment

EM (#1,012)

“What I’d like to do is buy 100 pizzas and have them delivered to a shelter. But I can’t afford that. So instead I’m just sitting here.” – Okay but would you? Because you could definitely afford to donate some canned food or clean towels to a shelter.

Confused (#2,501)

Jesus Christ, Logan. Even if your motivations are selfish, you’re still helping people. Yes, people volunteer/donate more after tragedies — because more help is needed! Can’t afford pizzas? Donate canned goods, bottles of water, batteries, blood, cash. I get that you’re in not a great financial situation but this is the most over the top, entitled thing I think I’ve ever read. Get up, stop feeling sorry for yourself (that’s what being “negative about my own motivations” really means), and contribute something– even if its just your time.

Weasley (#1,419)

You could always help and not pat yourself on the back for it.

sally (#917)

What if someday it turns out that the whole Sensei/Hot Mess thing with Mike Dang and Logan was all concocted by a jaded old copywriter for pennies a word? Like someone said, “What financial sites have never had is a narrative. We need a wise and reasonable voice, and then this kind of thirteen-year-old presence. Not completely unlikable, but just totally, irredeemably clueless. And over a period of years, she will get some tiny part of her shit together, and he will never ever lose his temper.”

notetoself (#1,291)

I find it really frustrating when people are so worried about consistency – or, I don’t know, motivated by extreme fear of other people doubting their motivations – that they never do anything worthwhile. If you’ve got good intentions and you’re receptive to feedback anyone can be useful.
Sure, you can’t fix everyone’s problems, but you can do something.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@notetoself This is a great point. And even if what you do is one day’s worth of work during a burst of motivation, then you still did the damn day of work.

oiseau (#1,830)

Do you know how we can solve this problem? How we can lower the deficit for once and for all?? How we can bring the divided peoples of this glorious nation together for once and for all?!! (stump speech voice)

National Mandatory Civil Service Temporary Conscription, in which everyone must serve draft-style.

You’re welcome.

deepomega (#22)

@oiseau Haha yes, nothing EVERY goes wrong with drafting people into national service, and it is CERTAINLY not expensive to do it!

oiseau (#1,830)

@deepomega I think that since the US is such a huge and splintering nation, and since people lucky enough to be in the top one percent have no way of understanding the experiences of the bottom percentages (and vice versa), some kind of mandatory service regardless of income level would actually bring the country together. Most of the kids who go into the military by choice are from poor families and veterans are unfortunately looked down on and even vilified by people lucky enough to never have to consider stopping so low. My semi-serious idea is instead of mandatory military service, Israel-style, the US could have mandatory civil service. Costs recouped through this effort could include FEMA’s budget, infrastructure maintenance and construction, government-owned land (parks, libraries, etc etc) grounds maintenance, maybe even take a load off the fire department or other emergency services. I’m sure there are other programs out there that could be supported/reduced by the use of millions of citizens…

We all know what a miserable failure the WPA was. Let’s not do that again.

frenz.lo (#455)

I fully acknowledge that I get paid in extreme smugness for the volunteer work that I do, but it sort of doesn’t matter what your secret motivations are. The work still needs doing, in pretty much any area you can think of. If it still feels disingenuous to be like, “I heroically step up in this time of crisis!” consider stepping in another direction. There are non-disaster-specific volunteer opportunities going begging, everywhere always. In the aftermath of something like this storm, the big disastery stuff is probably siphoning some resources away from causes that seem less urgent, so maybe this is the time to volunteer for something that seems less heroic, too.

themegnapkin (#444)

@frenz.lo this, exactly! Gretchen Rubin has a great take on it:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

The fact that you get to pat yourself on the back after doing something good for others is a bonus, not a negative.

selenana (#673)

I never help usually and I’m not going to start now…
This is a situation where you can gain the skills you need to be more helpful in the future. This is happening in your home, your backyard. This is your community, and this is a good reason to start helping here and now. And maybe be a catalyst to continue helping after the disaster has subsided. Speaking from experience.

Lily Rowan (#70)

But seriously, $10 to the Red Cross is a real thing. Because when 100K people do it, it turns into a million bucks.

Donating goods is never as good an idea as it feels like, but donating blood is great.

Sam B (#1,828)

I think Logan’s comment on the disingenuous-ness of volunteering for recovery is valid and something we should be considering, i.e. why do we consider the hurricane as an impetus for volunteering while the huge issues of homelessness and urban poverty that affect people everyday aren’t disastrous enough?

That said, it’s better to have a bunch of self-congratulating juiceboxes getting the work done than no one at all.

Oh man, I could talk A LOT about this. I think the visceral reaction to natural disasters comes down to two things: 1) “it could happen to me” and 2) the people suffering did nothing to “deserve” it.

The first feeling is why people donated so much to Japan after the tsunami, even though Japan was specifically asking people NOT to donate to them. Four months later when a drought affected some 12 million people in East Africa, the international community was unable to raise the rather modest funds they needed to avert the crisis, despite substantial early warnings. A totally predictable and preventable disaster that ultimately killed more people than the tsunami. The international community ended up donating something like $6.5 billion to Japan (even the city of Kandahar donated $50,000!), while food relief agencies were ultimately able to raise only about $1.7 billion for East Africa, much of it AFTER people had already begun to die.

Why the difference? I suspect a lot of it has to do with “it could happen to meee!” If you live in a coastal city you can look out your window and imagine what would happen if a tsunami hit. But dying in a drought or famine? I mean, did you know that 62% of the continental US is RIGHT NOW undergoing one of the worst droughts in history? Meteorologically speaking it’s probably worse than the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, but I doubt anyone reading this is seriously worried that they will actually, literally starve to death next year when the price effects start to hit.

Bringing it back closer to home is 2), the “deserving” victims. I know that both Mike and Logan are good, big-hearted liberals, but let’s be real. The nature of your compassion towards people made homeless by this storm is fundamentally different from any compassion you may feel towards the thousands of people who sleep in New York city streets and shelters every night as a result of some combination of bad luck and their own bad choices. The people in storm shelters are Just Like You! They are worried about charging their Macbook Air and all the Trader Joe’s frozen dinners going bad in their freezer! They’re not heroin addicts or schizophrenics — or, if they are, it hasn’t reached the point where their friends and family have given up on them and they are abandoned to the streets.

I’m not saying that you don’t care about “regular” homeless people (or famine victims for that matter) but just that you don’t relate to them. So I would advise anyone feeling generous towards their fellow (wo)man in the wake of this storm to examine their motives and think about where their drop in the bucket might be most effective. It’s kind of like how everyone always suggests donating blood: is there a huge new demand for blood because of the storm? No. But there IS a huge outpouring of people who want to “do something” for whom donating blood feels like enough of a sacrifice to be “something” yet still convenient enough to be doable. There is a perennial blood shortage, so why not capitalize on those feelings?

Lily Rowan (#70)

@stuffisthings That was great.

Actually, I bet there is a blood shortage because of power outages, and all the regular weekend donors who didn’t make it in last weekend. So it’s not that there’s a huge new demand, but there’s no supply for the regular demand. And blood doesn’t store well.

I think it also speaks to why giving to the Red Cross (and other national/international charities) in general is a good thing — you can’t give to the specific disaster anymore, I don’t think, so they are able to capitalize on the current outpouring and use it somewhere else when they need to.

@stuffisthings OMG, I love you. Also I think we work in the same field.

wearitcounts (#772)

@stuffisthings this was so, so well put. and motivating. thank you.

“It feels kind of … I don’t know, disingenuous to know that and see that and not do anything, and then now be like, THIS HURRICANE HAPPENED I MUST HELP. ”

Wow. I’m sorry, but no one is parsing your motivation but you. I really admire my friends who regularly volunteer. I don’t. Because there’s other things I’d rather do with my time. That doesn’t make me super proud of myself, and maybe it’ll change. But I admit it, you know? Related: I work in an industry built to help others. My motivations for that are complicated, and only part of it is helping people.

Fig. 1 (#632)

I think it’s important to examine your motivations, but also not to let your motivations ultimately deter you from a course of action that could benefit others. Cynicism only has so much use during times of strife. I don’t think it would be a bad thing to perhaps start thinking about what small thing you could do to help over the long run. Speaking as someone who volunteers occasionally, just because we can’t do a massive heroic action ourselves doesn’t mean the small things don’t count.

Also, listening to the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack, I find, gives me hope. Perhaps we can use this new clarity towards helping others further afield. Ignore your sunk costs in prior apathy.

Let’s step back and calm down, can we? Logan was being honest (and making herself vulnerable) by saying what a lot of people feel: kind of helpless, kind of lazy, well-intentioned but conflicted. The prompting to help out anyway and stop over-thinking makes sense. The lashing out doesn’t. We can’t all be Mike Dang.

My great contribution was to try to give blood. I was turned away because my iron was too low, which means I have some hamburgers and spinach in my future before I can be useful.

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