Have you ever wondered why nonprofits and fair trade organizations insist on including images of starving children, decimated village landscapes, and communities in tattered clothing in their promotions? It’s because they know that people make decisions with their feelings. The statistic that 2,500 children in Africa are dying of thirst everyday may not trigger an emotional response, but an image of an emaciated child can release a torrent of tears; it’s even better if a sad song is playing in the background. If you see it, you might do something about it. You might sponsor a child or support a co-op that provides a living wage for her mother. You might give an impassioned speech about our calling to help the needy and orphaned in the world at the next dinner party you attend.
But the image will soon fade and you’ll become preoccupied once again with daily annoyances, financial uncertainties, facebook arguments, or injustices at your workplace. Maybe, on a quiet evening at home, you’ll wonder why you can’t keep that fire alive to help the hopeless. You’ll do a little research. You’ll seek out pictures of starving families in an effort to get the tears flowing again.
A social justice model that relies on emotion to inform action isn’t sustainable. Though we may initially rely on feelings to spur us to moral action, we don’t need them to keep going. Once we realize that people are struggling and that we’re a part of the problem, we don’t have to feel it to know that we have to make a change. If you need to summon that post-cry, hollow feeling in your chest in order to help someone, you’re going to get burnt out rather quickly.
This subject is something I can’t overemphasize. It’s the most difficult thing for people to grasp because our feelings are wired to max out at a certain number of individuals. People in Bangladesh or Uganda or Ukraine are dim shadows on the far borders of our social circles. We simply don’t have the capacity to care about them as much as the people we see everyday. The great thing is that you don’t have to care about them with your heart to care about them in general.
At some point, our feelings of guilt, distress, and empathy need to tiptoe their way to habit building. We need to employ the ever practical, cognitive part of our brain that helps us make the moral choice because it’s essential, not because it’s sad. When you make it your duty to do right, you free yourself up to move forward – to make an even greater impact – because you’re no longer crippled by feeling.
Nonprofits don’t need to change the way they promote their programs; it’s essential that they pull on people’s heartstrings to win them over. But they, and we, should work to teach our communities that charity works better when it’s more than a feeling. We must emphasize over and over that moral habits are much more effective and much more sustainable when we don’t feel an obligation to cry about it everyday.
You don’t have to feel it. You just have to do it.