Six Degrees of Separation: The Anonymous Other

Part II of a "meditation" on why we so often do not seem to act in the face of human need.

I'm sure many of us remember the movie Six Degrees of Separation. It was based on a rather fascinating thesis that none of us is more than six relationships away from any other person on the globe. For example, if you're looking for someone who knows the mayor of a small city in Japan, it will take no more than six people making one phone call each to get to that person. Something like that. The notion encourages us to view ourselves as being much closer to each other than we ordinarily think we are. It's a charming notion but it amounts to very little on a practical level.

That other individual, even within reach of only five or six phone calls, is, right now, only an anonymous other -- and a very distant one at that. And each of us is just that to him or her. We do, for very good and self-evident reasons, reach out to the near and dear. We run to the side of a loved one in need; we donate blood to an ill colleague; we support the local charities. Connection or a feeling of connection is essential to the success of "helping organizations." And such organizations, which attempt to raise funds for worthy causes, usually try to use pictures of the suffering to shorten the "distance" between "us" and "them." We can be reached, touched, and moved to action. But not readily, not easily.

We turn down many, many more legitimate entreaties for support than we respond to. "After all, we can't help everyone!" Yet, all religious and ethical movements or philosophies seem to have a version of the "am I not my brother's keeper?" challenge. Perhaps we need to re-think our personal patterns of giving.

Consider this: perhaps, rather than waiting for a picture or a story to tug at our heartstrings, we could commit, every month, to giving to some cause that is worthy, that affects people who may be only "six degrees separated" from us -- but in fact they are people who are anonymous to you and me. Problems like hunger and disease and ignorance and enslavement abide. People who will always be anonymous to us are suffering and in need, ignored and left alone. It is possible to help them. We can support those who do help them. But their need does not wait for me to see their picture or be moved by a news video of some hideous natural disaster. The planet's people will begin to heal more perceptibly when we who have resources commit to giving to those anonymous others whose stories we do not know and faces we will never see.

One cause that cries out to us this April is malaria. The second World Malaria Day will be observed on the 25th. This ancient killer claims the lives of 3,000 African children every day, most of them under five. The irony is that malaria can be prevented with inexpensive, insecticide-treated bed nets, costing about $10 each. So maybe instead of going to the movies next weekend -- or maybe in addition to going -- why not buy something that will save an anonymous young life in a faraway place. Visit to make that purchase and maybe see what else you can do to help.