Would You Let This Girl Drown?
Jul 13, 2009 by Mark Young | 2 Comments
“Would You Let This Girl Drown?” is the startling title of a recent op-ed by Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times. (NY Times, July 9, 2009). In it Kristof describes a scenario in which world leaders at the Group of 8 summit in Italy come upon a young girl floundering in a pond, crying out for help and losing the struggle to keep her head above water. Would they jump into the water to save that one child? Likely yes, he notes. And then they’d call a press conference!
Yet, most of those world leaders have failed to meet their humanitarian aid pledges that could save millions of lives in the developing world. Why, Kristof then asks, are we so willing to save a single child right before us, but so reluctant to donate what’s needed to save thousands of children from life-threatening disease half-way around the world? (Kristof notes that Peter Singer uses the same illustration in his recent book, The Life You Can Save.)
That question probes our values system deeply. According to Kristof several studies have shown “that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several.” Kristof continues, “Perhaps this is because, as some research suggests, people give in large part to feel good inside. That works best when you write a check and the problem is solved. If instead you’re reminded of larger problems that you can never solve, the feel-good rewards diminish.”
I suspect that there is far more in play here than what’s noted above. (More about that in a later post.) But let’s not rush too quickly past the troubling observation that we often give for a selfish reason, to feel good about ourselves. Egocentric altruism—how’s that for the oxymoron of the day.
It isn’t surprising that most of what we do in life is calculated toward our own benefit. When we take the time to drill down to our real motives for just about everything we do, we’ll likely strike a gusher of selfishness. It’s just disconcerting to see it so starkly in these studies. Martin Luther’s description of sin as “the incurvature of the soul upon itself” points to an abiding expression of depravity in human behavior—the pursuit of one’s own good above all else. (See Robert W. Jensen, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, The Works of God, p.138) It follows, therefore, that the turning of oneself outward to pursue the good of another above one’s own good is the fundamental expression of righteousness. Jesus’ own words point in this direction as well. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up is cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Living inside out means turning what we are and what we do outward: to pursue the purpose of our God above our own purposes and to seek the good of others above our own good. There can be no illusion of Christ-likeness apart from that turning. Sometimes that means giving even when it doesn’t feel good.