I Can Only Paraphrase Comedian Steve Martin After Revisiting My Reaction to a Poor Woman’s Story About How She Lacked the Funds to Both De-worm Her Children and Buy Them Food

I once received a personal reply to an e-mail I had sent to Nicholas Kristof, which is kind of amazing, since on most days Mr. Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, probably gets more e-mails in an hour than I receive in a month.

This past week, Kristof, one of the world’s more visible and persistent bleeding hearts, was right back in my face, stirring muddy waters. This time, it wasn’t a personal reply for my eyes only. But everything he wrote in his column of July 8 could easily have been a continuation of his original e-mail to me, sent back in 2002.

If you’ve never come across his columns, Kristof’s beat is world suffering. Perhaps more than any single journalist, he has sought to alert the world to Darfur. This is, of course, the African region where gangs of killers called the Janjaweed have, with the support of a corrupt national Sudanese government, been committing genocide. In late 2002, Kristof wrote of an Argentine mother, Maria Amelia Miranda, who lived the Iapi shantytown in Monte Chingolo, south of Buenos Aires. She had been crying as he talked with her, and Kristof explained why:

“Three of her seven children — girls ages 8, 7 and 3 — have intestinal worms, up to a foot long, that she must periodically pull from their bottoms. But the worming medicine costs about $1.40 per child, and she can’t afford to buy both the medicine and food for the children. ‘Once I did buy a little medicine and gave each of my children a little bit,’ she said. ‘But it wasn’t the full dose, and so it didn’t do any good. So now my children are feeling itchy, and my 8-year-old is losing weight. If they have parasites, it doesn’t matter what they eat.’”

My reaction was predictable: “Oh, jeeeees.”

What I did next apparently was not widely copied because if even a small percentage of Kristof’s tens of thousands of readers that day had done the same thing, he could never have responded as quickly and as thoroughly and personally as he did to me.

I e-mailed him to ask how I could get money directly to Ms. Miranda. I made it clear that I didn’t want to simply make a donation in her honor to a charity. I wanted to be sure she received my funds personally. The fact that I was adamant about this may explain in part why I received such a detailed reply.

Sending Money to People With Little of It
Even today, reading Kristof’s reply for the first time in seven years, I still marvel at the care he took to try to make sure that my mission succeeded. He said it wouldn’t be easy, and there were no guarantees it would happen. But he gave me the name, address and phone numbers of a man who ran a soup kitchen close to Ms. Miranda. Kristof said he spoke only Spanish. And had no bank account for his soup kitchen. But he had one personally and I could send a check to him.

He added, “I don’t know him well enough to vouch for his honesty, but it’s a good sign that he is running the soup kitchen and other humanitarian programs.” And then he chided me a little, noting that there were a lot of organizations that do good work with the poor. He said one of his favorites was Childreach, the U.S. branch of Plan International.

Just in case he was corresponding with a wealthy Texan [we lived near Dallas at the time] who wanted to do “something grander,” [his words], he also gave me the name and e-mail address of an American living in Buenos Aires, who had arranged his visit to Ms. Miranda’s hometown.

My wife and I sent a check for $100 to the soup kitchen operator. A friend who speaks Spanish graciously wrote us an accompanying note explaining what we wanted done with the money. Half was for Ms. Miranda and half was for the soup kitchen. We never received a reply, nor were we expecting one. The feeling that we had learned of one family’s dire need and had responded was feel-good reward enough. That there was anything irrational or primitive about how we’d gone about it never occurred to me. At least, not then.

But all this changed the other day when I read Nicholas Kristof’s column. What I instantly remembered was my wanting the donation to go directly to Ms. Miranda and no one else. Now, seven years later, here was Kristof asking, in effect, “Why was that?”

Who Will Be Haves? Who Will Be Have-Nots?
Kristof has been turning more and more to brain/mind issues and experts in recent years to explain the sometimes bizarre behaviors he encounters as he globe-trots in search of human tragedies large and small. And in this column, he was at it again. He was wondering why we humans will often rush to help the few—like Ms. Miranda and her children—and yet will so easily dismiss the needs of the many.

This time he was quickly at the door of psychologist Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, who has pioneered this kind of research. A couple of years ago, Dr. Slovic reported on his detailed investigations in a journal article that used a quote from Mother Teresa as part of its title, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” [The rest of her quote is, “If I look at the one, I will.”]

One reason, Slovic suggests, is that ancient artifact of brain programming called “affect”: The instinctual processes that told our forebears whether a predator could be luring in the bushes or whether scummy water in the pond was safe to drink. Slovic says “affect” is there to protect us from immediate, present and visible danger, and calls it a remarkable mechanism. But it is up close and personal. It is not skilled at combining with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions such as when we need to act to help great masses of people avoid things like starvation, disease or genocide.

In fact, as Kristof pointed one, we tend to close our hearts to the suffering and plight of others when we start to encounter the grim evidence of large-scale loss and suffering. He wrote, “[I]t’s not just, as the saying goes, that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. More depressing, appeals to our rationality actually seem to impede empathy.”

Kristof adds, “I also wonder if our unremitting focus on suffering and unmet needs stirs up a cloud of negative feelings that incline people to avert their eyes and hurry by.”

Overloading Our Empathy Circuits
This certainly seems to be the case as the numbers get bigger. Academics call this “psychophysical numbing”. It is as if the more people who are affected, the less our mind is capable of being sensitive to the plight of the individuals that the masses represent.

Slovic writes about an experiment in which test subjects were asked to decide how many lives would have to be saved to justify giving a medical research institute a $10 million grant. Nearly two-thirds said if 15,000 people were at risk, then 9,000 would need to be saved. If 290,000 were at risk, then 100,000 would need to be saved. He notes the irony: “By implication, respondents saw saving 9,000 lives in the ‘smaller’ population as more valuable than saving ten times as many lives in the largest.”

I hope Sherry’s and my $100 made it to Ms. Miranda and her soup kitchen-operating friend. I hope she was able to buy the food and medicine her children needed. But not until this past week did it occur to me to question the rationality of insisting that my donation be put at such high risk to avoid giving it to masses of needy instead of a handful.

To paraphrase comedian Steve Martin and express a thought that most assuredly has occurred to the observant and empathetic Nicholas Kristof, at times our brain is “a wild and crazy guy.”

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