It hurts to make hypocritical choicesMost of us are hypocrites. We want to prevent Ethiopians from starving. We want to see an end to the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia. We want to break the economic barriers which separate the slums from the Back Bay.
But we also want to improve our own lives, and this is often more important to us than the lives of others. The "New Right" may be characterized by its lack of concern for others.
I volunteer at the hospital twice a week, three hours each day. Sometimes when I'm there, things get really busy. It's exciting to watch the doctors so involved. I think to myself that one day I will be one of them. The patients are in pain, but they usually don't complain very much.
I talked to a friend from Harvard last week who has done much work in the public sector. I was surprised to see her confused about her role in policy matters. She had always seemed so sure of her goals. Recently, however, her close friend switched from strong public motivations to more self-oriented motivations.
"I've lost a lot of sleep wondering what I should contribute," I told her. "The more I think about it, the more hypocritical I feel."
She knew what I meant. We all place limits on the amount of time we are willing to devote to others. The fact that we do not do more for others often causes an inner conflict. She gives much more of herself than most people, and I respect her for it.
When I am at the hospital, and before I go to sleep at night, I think about why I want to become a doctor. Did I reach my decision because I want to heal and improve people's lives? Or was I thinking more of the prestige and wealth associated with the medical profession? The thought that I may be solely influenced by the money worries me.
Some people (myself included, at times) think that self-interest and altruism are mutually exclusive options. Self-interested people ignore problems that do not affect them directly. They are devoted to their South Hampton homes. They argue that we are under no moral obligation to help. "It's their problem."
But not everyone escapes the dilemma of moral responsibility by completely ignoring the problems of others. There are subtle ways for us to do it.
My friend went to speak at a high school this summer. Students there had organized a nuclear disarmament club. When she got there, she found that the students, although interested in nukes, were shallow in many other areas of policy. It sounded to me as though nuclear disarmanent had become a trendy issue to these kids, and nothing more. Political concerns are not supposed to be fads.
Everyone should at least question daily what motivates their attitudes and actions. People without vision must be urged to look beyond four walls, and people with vision are to be congratulated.
I will spend another afternoon volunteering at the hospital today. During the three hours I am there, I see more pain than I see anywhere else.
One girl, screaming in agony, has to be restrained while the doctors try to diagnose her. A man in the waiting room falls apart because he has just lost his brother. The atmosphere is demanding. I do what I can to help individuals, but the underlying problems are always there, invulnerable. I urge to do more, but I will return to MIT when my three hours are up.
At times I fall into an abyss of irresponsibility. I escape by admitting that I must make insincere decisions; it is impossible and impractical to be completely devoted to others. I am only a human being.
Hypocrisy is my jailor.
I can only give a limited amount of time to the hospital, and no one expects me to do more than that. Likewise, no one expects me to travel to Africa and devote my life to ending hunger. Even so, hypocrisy is difficult to take.