A bomb explodes. You hear it. You’re just a few blocks away from the bombing site.
A man runs up to you: “Help me, help me! A bomb just exploded and I left my phone in there! I can’t call my wife to tell her I’m all right! Can you let me borrow your phone?”
What do you do?
Most of us would probably let the man borrow the phone.
But maybe you should do something different. Maybe you should run towards the bombing area and try to help the people who were actually injured by the bomb. Don’t they need your help more?
That’s what you decide to do. You arrive and see a woman sobbing on the curb. “Help me, help me!” she says. “I think my leg is broken.”
Most of us would probably try to help.
But maybe you should do something different. Maybe there are folks closer to the blast area who need more immediate attention.
You run closer to the blast site. You see limbs scattered on the ground. You see a familiar face — someone from your hometown. She is bleeding profusely from her arm, screaming. Paramedics are on the scene, but they are helping the man next to her, trying to staunch even more dramatic bleeding from his left leg, which is dangling from his knee by just a few sinews. You decide to help the woman you know. You rip the sleeve off your shirt and use it as a makeshift pressure pad to stop the bleeding. Blood continues to soak through it. You remove your belt and make it into a tourniquet, forcefully strapping the arm above the elbow. You elevate the arm, and sit with the woman, trying to comfort her.
You accompany her to the hospital, and as she lapses in and out of consciousness, you do what you can to find her family. She’s not a friend; she’s more of an acquaintance, but by searching your Facebook and Twitter connections, you are able to locate her family, and they thank you and tell you that you’re a hero. You sleep well that night, knowing you did something positive in a world ridden by evil.
But by the next day, you’re not sleeping so well again. You helped your acquaintance, to be sure, but you’ve now heard that ten people died in the bombing and that several more are still unaccounted for, perhaps buried in the rubble. Maybe you should have moved on and helped others after the first victim you helped was stable. Maybe you shouldn’t have stopped for her at all — there were obviously others in greater need of help.
On the other hand, you also would have been perfectly justified in going about your business or simply lending that first man your phone, then moving on to the activities you had planned for the day. Hundreds of people were already on the scene of the bombing, and it’s possible that by rushing in to help you could have made matters worse. You’re not a doctor, after all.
It’s a struggle and a balance we all face, at all levels of our lives. You can selflessly devote your life to serving others, but if everyone did that, we might miss out on many of the great things that were created for some motivation other than altruism. The beautiful New York City skyline wasn’t built for the benefit of the people who enjoy looking at it. Each building was created primarily for selfish purposes, but the net effect is something that benefits others.
I doubt many great works of art and literature were created out of altruism. I suspect that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, my favorite novel and one that has educated millions about the harm of racist beliefs, was written primarily to earn Twain fame and money. Twain believed that he and his heirs should retain copyright to his works indefinitely, failing to see any reason why his works should ever be free to the public, even centuries after his death. I don’t have a problem with that, because I love the book (though I’m glad his views on copyright have, at least to some extent, been mitigated) and I think it’s a net benefit to society.
But as you think about how to allocate your time, your resources, in a way that might help others, I invite you to consider what my brother Mark, who I’ve written about extensively, has to say about the problem.
“The people who scream loudest are usually not the ones who really need help. There are always people who are unable to scream at all.”