DRMacIver's Notebook

Other people’s needs

Other people’s needs

There is a passage from Will Buckingham’s “Finding Our Sea-Legs” that I think about a lot.

From page 54-56:

Let us imagine another example. One day you are going home, and you see Mavis, a bad-tempered pensioner who is also your neighbour, struggling along the street with her shopping. Before you can stop yourself, and against your better judgement, you find yourself offering to help her. THe next day when you see her, you are displeased to realise that the demands upon you are greater, not fewer: the experiential imperatives are more urgent and more compelling precisely because the day before you assumed the responsibilities that were incumbet upon you. There is Mavis with her shopping, and you really can’t not help her after having helped her the day before… So once again you carry her shopping, and before you know it, you find that you are helping her unpack it when you get it home for her. Over the next few days, things begin to spiral out of control; by the time the week is out, you find yourself in Mavis’s living room drinking a cup of weak tea and eating stale biscuits as she tells you interminably dull stories from the distant past. And you wonder: how did I end up here? The answer is that you ended up there precisely on account of the peculiar structure of responsibility that Levinas describes so well. Our responsibilities have the habit of increasing even more rapidly than we can assume them. We are, Levinas claims, infinitely responsible for the other person.


As Levinas explains, “The infinity of responsibility denotes not its actual immensity, but a responsibility increasing in the measure that it is assumed; duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished”.


The task of ethics, then, is undending; but because it is unending, there is always a possibility of freeing ourselves once again from the limited self-concern into which we, inevitably, fall. Here, I can do no better than quote the Talmudic passage with which Levinas himself was familiar:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the master is insistent. He also used tos say: You are not called to complete the work, nor are you free to evade it.

Ethically speaking, we are all incorrigible shirkers. When called upon to respond, we often walk past, as I walked on past the man in the marketplace in Darjeeling. But the demand does not go away. It is something with which we are continually presented in our relationships with others. Even ifwe do not have to save the world or complete the work, we are never free of the demand to respond. And when we do respond, there’s no telling where we might end up. When you think about it - when you really think about it - it is frightening.

It is frightening, but I reject the label of shirker. I’m not lazy, I’m a coward.

I think this is the sort of negative self-talk I hear you’re supposed to avoid, but if it helps I think you’re mostly cowards too. I’m not sure there’s any other way to survive as an individual, although degrees of cowardice vary.

I don’t know if I’m unusually cowardly in this regard, or whether I feel it more intensely than others, or whether the way I experience it is normal. But part of why I think so much about help is that I know this Mavis dynamic intimately.

Let me tell you one of the ways in which I’m a coward: I don’t give money to people I see begging. Literally almost never.

I could give you some rational argument as to why giving money to beggars is bad, and you should give money to more useful causes, or something like that, but it wouldn’t be true. Both in the sense that I think the argument is wrong, and it wouldn’t actually be relevant to why I don’t do it. The reason I don’t is something closer to Levinas’s infinite responsibility.

See, if I started giving money to them, I wouldn’t feel able to stop. Especially with how I will usually see the same ones over and over again, but even for beggars who I won’t see again, if I give to them I will feel like I have to give to the next one, and the next, and the next. And the ones I’m seeing regularly, now I’ve implicitly got a relationship with them. If I move, or go away, now they’re getting less money. Also, now they’re someone I know. I’ll say hi to them, I’ll talk to them, I’ll start to learn about their problems, I’ll want to help them more than I already am, and clearly they have vast needs or they wouldn’t be in this situation.

I want to be clear: This is a me problem, not a them problem. I’m not worried that because I give money to them they’ll start demanding more. That might happen, but I could deal with it, it’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried that once I start taking responsibility for them, I will take on more. They need help, vastly beyond my ability to give, and I don’t know how to take only finite responsibility for that.

It’s too much, and I can’t deal with it. If it were only one person, I could manage, maybe, but if you help one then there’s the next, and the next, and the next… At some point you have to draw lines, deny your responsibilities, and sometimes the only line you can safely draw with someone is to disclaim responsibility for them entirely.

Would this scenario I worry about come to pass? I don’t know. I’ve occasionally given money to beggars, and it’s definitely moved me more in this direction - more acutely aware of the problem - and then I stopped because I couldn’t face it.

Believe me, I am fully aware of the irony here. Because I cannot take infinite responsibility for them, I am denying them the concrete benefit of the finite responsibility I could take for them. Giving them £5 here and there would be much better than giving them nothing, and is easily within my means, except that I don’t know how to care only a little bit.

A lot of the problem here is one of collective responsibility. These are people we, as a society, are failing, and any one person trying to take on responsibility creates a load on them that they can’t bear, when it would be entirely collectively bearable.

(I have now set up a recurring donation to Shelter, which I should have done before but haven’t. This doesn’t help me with this problem even slightly, but at least it helps them)

I think a lot about the question of whether it’s possible to be a good person without a community sharing the load and honestly I don’t believe it is. I’ve talked about moral disorder as a key feature of the modern condition, but maybe constantly feeling guilty is just the natural consequence of being beset by infinite demands without the capacity to meet them. The only alternative is to stop caring.

I’m not even sure stopping caring works. I think mostly you just hide the part of you that cares, as best you can. It doesn’t go away.

Part of why I’m writing this today is because of my neighbours. I talked about them being loud in Walls of people, but this was pure euphemism. What I really mean is that they shout at their daughter a lot. Occasionally each other too, but especially the daughter. I’m almost certain it’s no more than shouting - certainly I have no reason to suspect otherwise, and I suspect given the thin walls I would have heard if so - but they do shout a lot, and I hear the daughter crying when they do. I’ve never met them, but I’ve seen them around a bit, and I know the daughter can’t be more than about five.

There’s nothing I can do about it really. Someone suggested I call the NSPCC to ask for advice, and I will probably do this, but I cannot imagine what advice they can offer. There’s no evidence of “real abuse”, and any heavy-handed interventions would almost certainly make her life worse. I don’t know the parents at all. If I did I would try to talk to them - maybe directly about this, maybe just about how they’re doing. The last few years have been rough, especially for parents, and they’re probably having a very bad time. I expect they could use help too. They should be better than this, regardless, but it’s probably still the most useful thing for the daughter that I could do, in this hypothetical situation where I could do anything at all.

I could try to introduce myself to them, see if there’s anything I could do to help, but I both am afraid of making things worse and also am, as mentioned, a coward. Or at least not brave enough for this. Also I desperately don’t want to take on this responsibility. If we had a shared community, I would happily do my part, but I know full well my limits and this is beyond them, because it’s not just something that even in an ideal case I can “fix” - it would need ongoing help and support, in the best case scenariowhere this actually worked.

I’ve spent a while trying to pretend that this is not my responsibility and that it’s merely an annoying fact of living in a building with poor sound insulation, but the truth is that it breaks my heart slightly every time. There’s a small child suffering, I even know her name because I’ve heard her parents calling it (and shouting it), and there’s nothing I can do about it but her pain is impossible to ignore.

I don’t know why this has hit me particularly hard today. Maybe just that I tweeted about it earlier and this caused me to stop ignoring how sad this makes me, but I’ve spent a significant chunk of this afternoon crying about it. This is pretty unusual for me - I don’t cry easily - but for some reason this hit me in a vulnerable spot.

I don’t think it’s that today was particularly bad next door - though it was on the bad side - I just stopped pretending for a minute that I didn’t care and that other people’s pain didn’t hurt me, and that was enough to set this off.

I think this is true in general really: Other people’s pain, or even their need, hurts if I let myself feel it. Especially if I can’t help, but sometimes even if I can. I spend a lot of effort pretending this isn’t the case, but I’m not sure that effort actually helps. It doesn’t really make the pain go away, it just buries it and I try to pretend that means it’s not there.

This is, perhaps, a piece I was missing in why I hold myself so tightly. Everyone is so full of pain and need all the time - virtually everyone I know spends a lot of their life depressed, tired, anxious, and generally struggling to keep on top of the world. If I let myself feel that too much, other people literally hurt to be around.