If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you probably know that I, like a lot of people, experience depression.
The worst thing about depression, for me, is that it robs me of all the things that make me like myself most and most like myself. I no longer take pleasure in small beautiful things. I don’t enjoy art. I am incapable of maintaining friendships. I can’t work.
The best thing about depression (which is not a title that there is a lot of competition for) is that, I think, I am a lot more familiar with what those things are than most people have. I have lived in the colorless world without light or joy, and so I know to give thanks when I am not there.
(Gratitude is one of the things depression robs me of.)
Oddly enough, one of the things I am grateful for– one of the things that depression clutches in its curved claws, cackles over, dangles out of my reach– is my sadness.
When I am depressed, it is hard to reach outside the endless gray apathy, the constant mild throbbing that doesn’t even deserve the title of “pain”. It is hard to care about others, even those most close to me. I can read stories of the greatest atrocities and feel nothing.
When I am in not depressed, my knowledge of the horrible things happening in the world makes me sad. These are some of the things that make me sad, when I am not depressed: autistic people electroshocked at the Judge Rotenberg Center; captive chimpanzees with PTSD and depression; neglect of the public health needs of prisoners; the absence of needle exchange programs for addicts; the rejection and abuse experienced by people with obstetric fistulas; people being coerced into having abortions, or into not having abortions. Perhaps you have your own list.
With the sadness comes a certain joy. There were 38 cases of polio this year, putting us tantalizingly close to eradication; a serial killer worse than any human serial killer, a murderer of children, who will never be in a position to kill again. I can look on Give Directly Live and read story after story of the benefits Give Directly has caused: houses built, children fed, small businesses founded. When I read these, I feel proud of my species, and of the small role I have played.
I recognize that, though it is a good and kind thing, it is not very wise, my sadness and my joy. It is not very good at multiplication; I feel as sad about the few hundred people at the Judge Rotenberg Center as I do about the million people with obstetric fistulas. It cares more about vivid stories than it does about statistical effects: even though Deworm the World and the Against Malaria Foundation are more effective, “another family doesn’t have malaria!” and “it is possible that there were large effects on income!” are not the kind of stories I get warm and fuzzy feelings from reading. It tends to be more horrified by things with an identifiable enemy: I am far more likely to be saddened by a situation of institutional abuse, which I loathe to the depth of my being, and my strong feelings about diseases mostly come from anthropomorphizing them. It is more motivated when I can imagine that I would have been a victim if I were not as unutterably lucky as I am: stories of addicts, or autistic people, or people with uteruses, will generally move me more than stories about groups I could not have been part of.
So I do not do what my sadness tells me to do. I do what my emotions would want me to do, if my feelings could do math, if I could rage as much about bad luck as about injustice and cruelty, if my empathy were strong enough to reach out to those very different from me. The charities I give to don’t help anyone on this list except the last, but I give in the name of the sick addicts and the tortured autistics, the chimpanzees and the prisoners, the people with no reproductive health care and the people whose reproductive health care abuses them, the children who will never have to live in an iron lung and the GiveDirectly mother who can give her children milk from their new cow. I give even when I am depressed, because I remember the person who I was, the person who depression stole from me; and that person cared, even when I do not, about the unimaginable pain and suffering there is in the world, and the power they have to make it better.
My housemate Linch asked me to write this post about taking the Giving What We Can pledge. I think that is a good thing to do for a lot of people; I myself have theoretically taken the pledge, except that I am absurdly bad at clicking buttons. But there are lots of people for whom that’s not the right choice. If you’re poor, I’d suggest taking the Life You Can Save pledge instead, in which the amount you’ve pledged to give is dependent on your income; in my experience, most people’s reaction to the TLYCS pledge is “wait, only X? I can definitely give X!” If you prefer having the flexibility to decide whether or not giving is the right way for you to do good right now, then don’t take the pledge, but I do encourage you to set aside some time to think about what good you’re doing and whether you’d like to do more.
And there are many other things that you can do, besides taking the pledge, if you feel the sadness and the joy I sometimes feel, or if you have been robbed of it as I sometimes have. You can build your career capital to increase your power to do good: I recommend looking through this list on 80,000 Hours, and if there’s anything that makes you go “aw, fuck”, then set a goal to work on that one. You can help people you know do good: creating community resources, mentoring, giving financial or emotional support. (I don’t just mean “in the effective altruist community” either– if you’re an economics professor, mentoring your altruism-minded students has the potential to do a lot of good.) You can go vegetarian or vegan; if vegetarianism or veganism aren’t possible for you, maybe one of these suggestions will. If you’re not in a highly effective career, you can transition to a career that lets you do good; 80,000 Hours has a new book which looks fascinating. If you are, you can try to do your job better. You can donate a kidney.
No one is going to do all of those things. But if one or a few makes you go “yeah, I can do that”… if you feel sad about your own personal list of the ways the world is unutterably fucked up… I hope you join me in trying to make it a little less fucked up. There’s a lot of problem. We need good people to help fix it.