Causes, Part 4

Hey all,

Last part of this tremendously long post! These essays are shorter—just some notes left until you’ve finished :).

Outlined in part 1:

“[I like to ask people about causes.] People have said ‘climate change,’ and go on to detail the work they’ve done in that area. ‘Social change,’ and describe their PhD work. ‘Healing.’ ‘Family.’ ‘Faith.’”

Healing and family.



Of all the possible career paths you could have, healing—or doing research with clinical applications— is probably the most straightforwardly “right” way to live one’s life. I’d forgotten about this one when I was asking people about causes, because most people aren’t training to be doctors. But the girl across from me at the International Students dinner ventured this as an answer, and I immediately said duh in my head. This is the perfect cause.

Why don’t more people become doctors? Or—here’s another one—why are there different reasons to become doctors? From the medical students I know, there are a lot of people who are there to heal and to help. There are also people doing it because it has high status in our society, because it pays well, because their parents told them to, or because it seems interesting. I don’t personally mind “impure” motivations—as long as you’re good at your job, I don’t see it mattering much in the general case. But it puts an interesting spin on the “cause” mindset I have, because it shows that “advancing the human race” (or animals that humans care about!) is much more of an intellectual exercise than an actual motivating factor.

(For example, I’m not working on the things I think would be most helpful overall; I’m doing a job that I think will be fun while still working toward some possibly-might-have-useful-applications-eventually goal. Wondering about causes is still an intriguing intellectual exercise though—the meaning of life and purpose of life has a long history of being contemplated :)).

One of the oddest discrepancies that continues to strike me is the line between “work” and “daily life”. My best friend Tiffany volunteers with end-of-life patients, and she says that some of them want to talk with her longer than she has time for. She has other things to do and study, so she only stays her allocated time. I just went to a lecture from one of our College’s staff members who went and volunteered in Sierra Leone in dealing with the Ebola crisis. She was very grateful to the College for allowing her to take leave from her job to do this, and it feels so strange, because she’s doing something that most of us do not have the bravery to do and it seems odd to think that she needs permission to take a “break”. For a less severe example, my friend Sanja was telling me about a flatmate who lived above her family when she was young: this woman was schizophrenic and played music at early hours of the morning to drown out the voices in her head, but her neighbors kept calling the police on her because their children couldn’t sleep. These are situations in which some people obviously need help, and would benefit more than our help and time than most other people or things we could be doing. But the healers have lives too, and they have to take care of themselves as well. This difference between helping others and living one’s own life is far more obvious in careers where the work is enormously beneficial.

(A digression: I participated in a psychology study that involved choosing to share some amount of virtual money with a virtual stranger, who would then receive triple the amount of money and could share some back with me. I then answered a series of questions on how trusting I was and how fair I thought the world was. I was initially influenced by the fact that my virtual stranger had shared half the money with me, for which I was happy, and then I started thinking about the Ebola lecture I’d gone to with regards to whether the world was fair. In the end of the study, I received a debrief form that shared the actual experimental manipulation that had been tested. Apparently, I’d received a mouse that had honey on it, and other people hadn’t, and the people who had a sticky mouse were supposed to be less trusting than the people with clean mouses. I was pretty incredulous. Science as a field can be tremendously informative and useful, and other times I feel like we’re chasing our tails in circles, going down tiny rabbit holes irrelevant to the big picture. It always makes me feel much calmer when I can think about something larger, can get outside of the circles in my head.

Maybe in healing you always have that certainty… or maybe you still have to keep finding a higher purpose and redirecting, just like everyone else.)


And finally, family.

Family, as a cause, probably should have been obvious to me. They are so important in developing who we are as people, and it must be thrilling, and fulfilling, to play such an important role in shaping another (or more) people. And it’s a goal that continues to give back—your children feed forward to the next generation, to the next, to the next, so you’ve started something that will continue throughout the whole of your lifetime, will likely be rewarding and show results throughout, will require strength and growing and learning, and will leave an unending legacy. You’ve created life and have contributed to humankind in a way millions of organisms have before you and millions will after. You’re participating in a circle of life honed over generations, and you’re joining communities far larger than your own. You are connected with other people socially and emotionally, and are a part of something greater.

… I can see how that’d be a good cause. Now that I write this, I’m actually very confused as to why I have no inclination to participate in this. In my head, it’s always been very simple: the point of having children is that some of them will grow up to be important people and accomplish stuff. Why not just accomplish the stuff yourself?

And I sit here blinking at the screen trying to figure out what goes on in my head.

I think the problem, fundamentally, is that I’ve never viewed having a family as a goal in itself. I’ve always kind of seen it as: you get a chance to make / influence a person, with the hopes that they’ll do something amazing in the future. So it’s kind of a responsibility everyone should have, because we want people to do amazing things, so we should go try to raise children who can do things. The logic basically comes from the fact that people are proud when their children do things. But as a whole, given what I know of people having and raising children, this overall reasoning doesn’t make sense at all.

It makes far more sense when you think of having a family as being connected to others, and connected to the fundamental things that tie people together. Ties of blood. Kinship. Social ties among similar situations—but also acceptance, creation, growing, giving, awe. Hope. The concept is miraculous, watching each stage is remarkable, and there is a deep and abiding fascination with this lifelong act of creation.

I still don’t feel it, really. It’s a good thing that I believe that actions are more important than motivations, otherwise I fear for any future children I may have. I think there’s something deeply intuitive that I’m failing to grasp here. My foundation is shaky—but it’s also possible that I’m missing the subtleties overlaid on the bedrock, that the motivation is individual for everyone, and that that’s what I’m failing to grasp.

I wonder if it will develop with time? Because it seems to be already present in many people that I know. It feels like one of those things you feel, not one of those things you think, but I don’t have enough years and examples to predict where my head will go.


Most causes, I think, are simple. Helping people in some small way in their lives, with the bigger causes a matter of scale and depth. They are often removed from our daily activities, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, are incorporated into our jobs. Everyone sees the world differently, but there are definite trends we settle on, common causes amidst groups, cultures, and our species.

Which causes should we believe in? Does the question matter? We may want more of one type of person than another, may have optimal calculations for which actions we should pursue, but in the end we all do what we think will be the most fulfilling given our luck, abilities and interests. And if these interests happen to coincide with causes—or if the draw of them is that they are causes—any cause, any belief in something that will make the world better, in whatever way we best define: all the better, hopefully. As long as we’re not hurting anyone, as long as we have good definitions, as long as we do have people doing what should be done: hopefully, all the better. (Causes are often motivational. Causes can also be wrong.)

I think that causes are often right. Often the product of people believing something deeply, and wanting to help deeply, and finding something that makes them feel like they’re living for something greater than themselves. Maybe it’s the greatest achievement and motivation (is it intuitive?) that humans can have.

That’s all I’ve got, readers :). I’d love to hear about your causes, or whatever else you were thinking about when you made it through this massive document. Especially if you disagreed—not many people message me, but I’ve learned from almost everyone who has.

Thanks as always for sitting it through with me, and best wishes for the weekend.


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