doing the most good

constructing  a teaching hospital in rural Nepal

constructing a teaching hospital in rural Nepal

Now that mine is almost over, I can say that the one thing that struck me most about life is the capacity for change. One day you're a person and the next day they tell you you're a dog. At first it's hard to bear, but after a while you learn not to look at it as a loss. There's even a moment when it becomes exhilarating to realize just how little needs to stay the same for you to continue the effort they call, for lack of a better word, being human.

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

I spent all of Philanthropy Day 2015 at a small conference of local nonprofit leaders.  Our first panel session was a discussion of Illinois' state budget crisis, and the moderator began by mentioning two local organizations that had recently closed: a historically thriving children's choir and a small repertory theater company that performed throughout the region.  

Former Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, also a former domestic violence lawyer, offered this question not long into the discussion: "Your legislators are hearing about the choirs and the theater companies, but how long until people are literally dying because of budget cuts?"  A domestic violence shelter in Illinois has already closed for lack of state funding.

The question brought to a head many of the feelings I've had recently as I've simplified and prioritized my long list of projects.  At Peter Singer's Chicago Humanities Festival lecture a few weeks ago, an audience member asked him about support for the arts.  He said that arts funding, including that for the Chicago Humanities Festival, brought Singer there to share his thoughts and promote effective altruism.  Is there not a benefit to that?

And Singer basically said no.  He said that if you asked him to donate to the festival, he would decline.  His priorities lie elsewhere. 

When I first started taking visual art seriously, I felt rather like a traitor to my music practice: I had decided some time ago that I was a musician, and that I would orient my life toward that.  It's not that I stopped playing music, but I stopped considering myself first and foremost a musician.  Since then, as all my artistic practices have waxed and waned, I've been less interested in what to call myself (though it is occasionally difficult when people ask), and more interested in authenticity.  

I first came to know Prof. Singer through a long video of his discussion with Richard Dawkins about the implications of Darwinian evolution on our dietary choices.  The phrase that Dawkins kept saying, which still sticks with me, is that Singer was completely "ethically consistent."  Watching the video, I could tell that Dawkins might not agree with what Singer was saying (or perhaps he simply didn't want to give up eating animals), but he admired Singer's consistency, and his thoroughness of consideration for every issue.  

After his festival lecture, I managed to meet Prof. Singer in his book-signing line, and I mentioned to him that I write for The Life You Can Save and that he quoted me in The Most Good You Can Do.  He seemed authentically happy to meet someone fighting the same fight that he is.  

That evening, I headed to a concert: a classical choral ensemble whose performance I was managing.  It felt rather ridiculous, given the afternoon's discussion on the best way to spend our money and time, and how easy it is to resolve some of the most pressing issues in our world.  I realized that day that I no longer want to work in the arts.  My priorities, and thankfully my abilities, lie elsewhere. 

Christopher Hitchens liked to say that everyone "keeps two sets of books," and I am no exception.  Even after becoming an effective altruist, I continued to support the arts and raise money for performance organizations.  It's not that those things aren't important (I do agree with Albie Sachs when he says that the poor want more than a full belly), but they simply are not the most important things to which I could dedicate my time.   

What eventually assuaged my feelings of disloyalty to music was the knowledge that personal values change.  It seems like a simple thing to realize, but even since my age was in the single digits, I wrapped my identity around the fact that music was the most important thing in my life.  But now that I've been through a few fresh starts, it is not so daunting to leave something behind.  Many years ago I wanted to attend the French Pastry School, but then I read a book and became vegan.  Rather abruptly, another possible life washed away, though I do not mourn it. 

Every few months, I read or see something that renews my vigor in important things.  Sometimes it's beginning a new art project or seeing a performance, but most times it's not.  It's Possible's Impact Reports, or a letter from the Fistula Foundation, or, most recently, finally meeting Peter Singer face to face.  

Some people are reluctant to use the term "life-changing" too often, but I think every moment has the potential to be life-changing, and many moments are.  The key to noticing them is being willing to change your life.