Simply put, the measuring stick of the minutiae we use to evaluate our problems takes our attention from the greater issues we seek to solve. Because we’ve made comfort the epicenter of our lives, discomfort has become synonymous with unhappiness. Little sleep, wet shoes and scads of reading can quickly overshadow us. It’s not wrong to value our comforts, privileges and ambitions — after all, we came to Princeton for a reason, and we’ve worked hard to get here — but to endow them with inordinate import unsteadies the balance of our lives. It is easy to become caught up in our “first world problems” and risk losing touch with the global sufferings we aim to resolve.
Our conflation of comfort and happiness mistakenly supposes that we know the formula for happiness, and in turn, we try to use this formula to solve the problems of others; happiness, then, is presumed to be out of reach of those who do not meet the requirements for a comfortable life. But are we missing a step in the process, a step that precedes the distribution of material goods? That is, do we fail to recognize our motivations and the limits of comfort’s ability to satisfy suffering and generate happiness?
When we make this mistake, we take the burden of others’ discomfort as our own unhappiness, driving us to find a quick blanket solution to alleviate our own pain. Some might argue that this is empathy. However, the alleviation of our uneasiness should not be the primary source of fuel in reacting to a situation of suffering; there is a great and real danger in making the resolution of their issues a means of assuaging our own discomfort and elevating our own sense of accomplishment. In doing this, we risk reducing others’ problems to just another check on our routine “to-do” lists, just another item to complete and put behind us before we float on to new ideas and adventures.
To be truly empathetic, we need to first appreciate the value of another man’s life and the magnitude of simply being alive, even in the midst of suffering. Service begins not in listing statistics or bullet-pointed information but in acknowledging the inherent nobility of man and the desire for his flourishing. This basic recognition is vital to the fundamental idea of social service. Only when we truly open ourselves to recognizing the depth of another’s distress can we serve with humility and integrity. When we serve humanity, we are not serving an abstract idea or a sterile set of problems, but individual persons who experience not only sorrow and pain but also hope and joy and a wonderful perseverance to not just survive but thrive.
So, when we seek to serve, let us not view our fellow man as a means to our own end but as a person with potential — a potential that is not neutralized by suffering or situation. While we are right to fight against true discomfort and suffering for they are not “good” in and of themselves and inhibit some from acting, thriving and rejoicing, man’s value is not reduced by these circumstances. Regardless of current unmet potential, deformity, pain or circumstance, humanity — and each human life that comprises it — still remains a continual source of possibilities that we have the opportunity and responsibility to mold into positive potential.
To welcome these positive possibilities in all forms, in all stages of development is the essence of what it means to be pro-life. For those of us who sit in Frist this week for Respect Life Week, our project is not an anti-abortion crusade but an effort to promote these possibilities and assist in their actualization. While some may disagree about how best to allow these possibilities to evolve, we should all remember that we are united by an interest in the advancement of persons and of humanity. So, this week we all have a challenge to consider: break the balloon and consider how we can most authentically serve those around us and encourage the positive possibilities within them.
Addie Darling is a comparative literature major from Virginia Beach, Va. and can be reached email@example.com. Natalie Scholl is a classics major from Plymouth, Minn. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.