A number of years ago I got involved with an international nonprofit mission to end hunger in the world. Some of the smartest people on the planet had determined that the central challenge around hunger wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food. The central challenge was that there wasn’t sufficient awareness of the problem, there wasn’t sufficient political will to address it, and there wasn’t competent, organized distribution of the food that was already available.
Take One for the Team
The plan to end hunger was a simple one – brilliantly conceived in my estimation – start by raising awareness of the issue. In order to do that, the job of every volunteer in the organization was simply to “enroll” people – sign them up to become a member of the organization. Each week I would receive a telephone call from a local “organizer” asking me to pledge a number of people I would promise to enroll the following week. Even though the objective was straightforward, I always hated those calls and invariably resisted offering up any enrollment number greater than One. I was quickly identified as someone who “wasn’t a team player.”
What I was, in my own eyes, was someone who actively disdained Groupthink, and would do whatever I thought necessary to raise awareness when I thought it might be operating to individual people’s detriment. Groupthink is bad for the brain, bad for the body.
I was living in New England at the time and one lovely autumn afternoon I got a call informing me that there would be a weekend area-wide gathering in Massachusetts and I was “invited.” Reluctantly, mostly out of curiosity, I agreed to attend. The first day close to a thousand of us recruits were all shown into a large auditorium and we were invited to “tell our stories” about the struggles and sacrifices people were making in order to meet the organization’s enrollment goals. One after another people stood up and told stories about how their primary relationships were filled with conflict, how their kids were being neglected and how their livelihoods were suffering as they devoted more and more time to the work of ending hunger in the world.
When the sharing part of the proceedings was deemed done, we were all invited to “acknowledge” the people and their suffering in service to the grand goal of “ending hunger in the world.”
First Bait, Then Switch
Soon, it became clear that this first part of the gathering was simply a setup for the second part – now people who were already suffering and sacrificing for this project were being required to “target out of control.” Whatever number of recruits you had previously committed to enrolling into the organization, now you had to promise to bring in a number that was far beyond anything you could possibly imagine.
People (shills?) began standing up and publicly proclaiming “100!” “150!” The applause and excitement began building. “200.” “250.” “500!” Now people are standing and stomping and cheering.
How to Create a Vacuum
And then it was my turn. Slowly I stood up and looked around the room. For the longest time I didn’t say anything. I simply made eye contact with as many people as I could get to look back at me. And then, very quietly, I said, “I’m only going to recruit one new person.”
Whoosh! The room turned into a Bell Jar. All the energy immediately got sucked out. Clearly, the spell had been broken. Then a woman over to my right stood up. “I’m only going to recruit one person, too. I’m already stretched past my breaking point.” A man stood up behind me, “I’m not going to recruit anyone else. I’ve already put in all the time and energy I can for this work.” A young woman directly in front of me stood up: “I’m a student, and I’m also working full-time. Both my job and my schoolwork are suffering from the time I devote to this project. Thank you,” she turned and said to me, “I’m only going to recruit one person, too.”
I didn’t stick around to find out how the rest of the weekend went. It became clear to me that my work and my involvement with the organization was finished. If hunger was going to be eliminated in the world, I had done all I wanted to do as part of this organization. I was going home and help harvest the vegetables in our local community garden.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Decades later, hunger still persists in the world for many of the same reasons that it did back then. The good news is that since that time world hunger has been reduced by 42%. Which is a good thing, I think.
What’s not a good thing is organizing efforts to address hunger that raise stress levels to the point of causing neural disorganization and significant suffering in people’s lives who generously and compassionately wish to help. When more suffering deliberately or inadvertently results from attempts to end suffering, your brain and my brain want us to make trouble. To not speak up in the face of real suffering is to promote more suffering. Enroll with that realization.