Understanding the Hunger Space: Part 4
By Rick McNary
“This looks like a rock concert,” the security guard said as we looked at the long line trying to get in the Kansas Coliseum, “only these people aren’t drunk.”
It was January 2010 and the line outside was six people across and 150 yards deep. The line inside was wall-to-wall with people of all ages waiting to package meals for the victims of the Haiti earthquake. In two days, over twelve thousand volunteers arrived to package 1.25 million meals for the victims.
One lady said to me, “I’ve never had so much fun doing so much good!”
In the first six months of 2010, I crisscrossed the country partnering my organization with the Salvation Army to engage over 120,000 volunteers to package 20 million meals for the disaster in Haiti. At the end of that run, I sat down with my team and asked, “What did we learn?”
One young guy, a bit nervous, replied, “Um, that fighting hunger can be fun?”
Never, in my life, have I heard that message associated with fighting hunger. Like I wrote about in Part 3 of ‘Understanding the Hunger Space’, usually the message is associated with negative motivations like guilt, pity or anger, but never with fun!
As I look for sustainable motivations to engage people in the fight against hunger, I’d like to offer you three that I believe will hold water over the course of time: pleasure, fairness and compassion.
Pleasure is the result of virtuous activity. – Aristotle, 300 B.C.
I learned to avoid math classes in college by taking a lot of philosophy courses. I thought I was being clever until someone pointed out that a lot of philosophers were mathematicians. I was tricked.
One of my favorite philosophers was Aristotle, a student of Plato. Aristotle believed that pleasure was a result of doing good things. To Aristotle, if you have pleasure as your summum bonum (highest good), you’ll never reach it because pleasure is a byproduct, not a goal. Making pleasure your ultimate goal is kind of like eating peas with a butter knife -you can chase them around on your plate all day long and never catch the little rascals.
Aristotle taught that pleasure was something you got as you were going after something else. So if you determine that virtuous activity was your goal, then along
that journey pleasure would slip in beside you and hold your hand. But if you make pleasure the goal, you’ll never find it.
Engaging in the fight against hunger is an outstanding virtuous activity. Hopefully, you can one day say, “I’ve never had so much fun doing so much good.”
Even though we know life isn’t fair, we have an innate desire to make it fair; that’s why people yell at referees at ball games. “Hey Ref, call it the same on both ends of the court!”
Have you ever heard of the ultimate game? Peter Singer in The Life You Can Save talks about our innate desire for life to be fair:
Two strangers are put together in a room and Person A is given $10 and Person B is given nothing. Person A is instructed to divide the cash with Person B, but no prescribed percentage is given. If Person B rejects the offer from Person A, neither one of them get anything. Almost always, Person A offers a 50/50 split. But on the occasions that Person A offers less than a 50/50 split, Person B will reject it. So strong is our sense of fairness that we will reject personal gain if we think we’re being treated unfairly. “In fact, even monkeys will reject a reward for a task if they see another monkey getting a better reward for performing the same task.”i
Engaging in the fight against hunger is about doing all we can to make life fair; it’s in our nature.
You react one of three ways when you see an image of a hungry child:
- Apathy – you don’t really care
- Sympathy – you feel pity and sorrow
- Empathy – you are moved with compassion and find a way to alleviate suffering
After I threw myself headfirst in to the fight against hunger, I spoke to any group that listened to me. I showed photos of the children eating in the garbage dump in Nicaragua or begging in the villages of Africa. But I became more frustrated because it didn’t appear to me that people cared. Finally, it occurred to me that people do care; they want a different option besides giving money; that’s why I started my own meal packaging organization.
Considerable research has led some to believe we are soft-wired to care for one another. Jeremy Rifkin in this animated video, The Empathic Civilization, postulates, “We are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves.” Therefore, empathy moves us to do something to help. The challenge is finding a way to intersect.
The rest of these blogs will focus on ways to find a spot for you to engage and move from awareness to action to advocacy (The Triple A’s of Hunger).
And you will be able to say, “I’ve never had so much fun doing so much good!”
Rick McNary is the Author of Hunger Bites: Bite Size Stories of Inspiration & vice president of public and private partnerships for Outreach, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Board for the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C., and is a long-time friend of Universities Fighting World Hunger. Follow him at http://www.rickmcnary.me or connect via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save (New York: Random House, 2009), p. 55.