08/13/2013 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Well, There's a Wide Wide World of Noble Causes


I met a woman the other day at a cocktail party in Boston. She seemed fun and funny, probably in her late 40's, she had pale skin and freckles, red hair and an awesome dress that looked like it belonged to a British stepmother I once had. We bonded over the buffet and quickly moved through a conversation about where we lived, whom we knew and what we did. She told me about her twin sons and about her job in marketing at a small and trendy firm in the suburbs. I shared an appreciation for her work, and an abridged version of my elevator speech, emphasizing that, as a non-profit working with orphaned children in Kenya, good marketing was vital to fundraising.

My small contribution to the conversation fell flat and the woman in the awesome dress seemed annoyed. I recognized her expression as she searched my face, wondering how low she would have to pitch it to me. "Can I ask you a question?" she began. I wanted to say, "Not really" like an exasperated teenager from a cool neighborhood in California. I wanted to say, "If I can guess the question before you ask it, will you give me 10 dollars?" But instead, I said, "Sure" and gave her my best doe-eyed look. I took a few steps back and reached for more puff pastry appetizers. She was lucky I was slipping into a food coma.

Awesome-dress-lady straightened her shoulders and pointed to the ground with both index fingers, "Why not help children right here?" I glanced down at the floor, searching for helpless children around her feet. "You mean America?" I asked. "Yes" she responded, "or Boston, Brockton, Mass-a-chusetts." I get this question a lot and an alarming amount of people have contempt in their voice when they ask it. It is last on my list of things I want to talk about. I have a well-rehearsed response; I can switch it on as if putting a tape entitled "diplomatic answer for person who is mad at your work" into a VCR. I was getting ready to Press 'Play', wondering who else was at the party, when something happened: instead of bored, I felt deeply offended.

I tried to engage my normal response. Typically, by this point in my answer, I am pretending it is the first time that the question has ever been posed to me. I do that for about 30 seconds, as if I am reconsidering my entire life's work. I affirm the reasonable parts of the question, all the while speaking as if I am trying to piece together a puzzle. "You are absolutely right. There is so much suffering here, right in our own backyards. Some children are homeless, food-insecure, abused. Kids struggle with cancer, trauma, death." Is it me, or does she look pleased? "Are you involved with any of these causes?" I asked, "I would love to support you."

She frowned. I explained that I admire a passion for social justice, in any form. I argued that -- if we both worked in conservation and I was helping polar bears and she was saving whales -- I wouldn't find one cause less or more worthy than the other, I would just be excited to connect to someone who cares about something, somewhere! I pushed the question, again: What do you care about, awesome-dress-lady? What moves you?

"I care about causes here" she answered, crossing her arms. "So do I," I said, "very much." I defended my work in Kenya by admitting that while I, personally, was drawn to serving in a part of the world that lacks access to fundamental social services, where children often live without basic human rights, clean drinking water, a chance to go to school, to live past the age of five, I do not believe that makes me unpatriotic or uncaring or irresponsible. She had begun to look past me.

I asked her if she had ever seen a child die from hunger. I told her a story about a colleague of mine who worked with starving children in the DR Congo. It is painful and excruciatingly slow: dying hungry. I tried to imitate the same matter-of-fact way my friend* explains it, "children, in particular, do not tolerate very well the intense pain associated with starvation." I told her about a very sick, motherless and afraid four-year-old with whom I had recently interacted. I knew that I was starting to appear desperate. I didn't want a donation from her, or recognition; I wasn't even looking for respect. I wanted her compassion.

In my opinion, when someone experiences suffering, serious human suffering, on any continent, they are less likely to question or devalue suffering anywhere. Personally, I believe that not all suffering is entirely equal, but through my work in Kenya, I am more -- not less -- sensitive to someone going through a divorce, more patient with someone battling an addiction, kinder to someone who recently buried their yellow Labrador. I expected the same charity from her.

I didn't stand there much longer. Her comments had left me feeling sad, and a bit lonely. I want to encounter outrage like hers in a different context, toward an injustice of some kind, not directed at me or my unexceptional efforts in Kenya. Challenge me on the 'how': that is a conversation I want to have at the buffet. Tell me about exciting projects taking place locally; let's talk about aid versus trade versus top-down or grassroots. But don't, with so much anger and judgement in your voice, pick a fight on the 'where.' Diminishing the needs of the world's poorest children, and opposing the work that is being done to meet them, is destructive. It's also incredibly rude to attack someone's profession within five minutes of meeting them. I grew up in America, and that means I get to be anything I want.

*this lady speaks English as a second language and I will never again try to imitate her because I sound like a sociopath.