Too Many Things To Care About

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It's right to feel passionately about causes one believes in. It's just not realistic to expect others to feel the same way. (Judith E. Bell/flickr)
It's right to feel passionately about causes one believes in. It's just not realistic to expect others to feel the same way. (Judith E. Bell/flickr)

This segment aired on July 23, 2018.

After presenting a recent talk on transgender equality, the indeterminate speaker concluded with calls for action. "Become passionate!" said the former man, flushed with feeling for the cause (which some in the audience found remote), and the desire to impart it. "Campaign! Donate! Volunteer!" There was nothing more important to her.

Driving home, feeling unimpassioned and mildly guilty, I passed a breakfast café in my neighborhood. Muffins the size of small cushions were cooling in the front window. I happen to know they are a tasty analgesic when one has just emerged from the dental clinic next door. An immigrant gentleman owns the café. Framed maps of his native country hang everywhere, along with newspaper articles about the genocide that occurred there. It tears at his heart, and he wants it to tear at his customers' too. There is nothing more important to him.

Many years ago, in my old hospital, a death occurred that a number of us thought had been more than the patient’s bad fortune. We believed it should have been prevented. We brought the story to newspapers and radio stations, hoping to expose its details. We wanted justice and policy change. It tore at our hearts, there was nothing more important to us, and we knew that everyone in the media would feel similarly.

We were shocked when they didn’t.

Oh, the opportunities for righting the earth. Once upon a time, we only knew about our own tragedies and those of our neighbors. Now, we can know all happenings in all places at all times; an abundance of knowledge without respite. When I tell phone solicitors I am just the babysitter, they go right on talking. They, too, feel their causes deserve full attention. But this is impossible. We are in cause overload.

Movie stars and politicians — sometimes, movie stars who are politicians — write personally to me every week. It looks like they have hand-addressed the envelopes themselves: Join me, Elisssa Eli (they write, it seems, but don’t spell — one envelope came to Ms. Fly). Donate! Petition! Volunteer! Involve yourself! I could spend a lifetime on any of their just causes and more lives on the good causes of the forum speaker, the café owner. I used to wish I could.

Weariness might be the first indication of my aging decline. It feels like viewing an endless series of planes waiting to take off from the tarmac, if only I would fuel them. But here it is: My life has not been ravaged by transgender bias or genocide. The restaurant owner would probably not have cared about my patient’s death. I know a highly ethical and passionate vegan who doesn’t recycle. No one can fuel all those planes.

We pursue our causes as passionately as possible, each to their own, and it’s right to be judged by the ones we care for. It’s not right to be judged if we can’t care for them all.

Headshot of Elissa Ely

Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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