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Mission Possible

By PAM BERNS

   Maybe the mission isn’t happiness.

   The other day we had a meeting about the question of what it is all about—our country’s wars in the Middle East, our responsibility to bring freedom to those who are oppressed, our sense of well-being in a very complicated world, what our mission as a magazine should be.
   Most of us acknowledge that GDP and personal wealth do not necessarily correlate with happiness. But if you are the one who just lost your home due to the financial meltdown, or if you cannot afford to have surgery for a painful hip or if you are in your 70s and have to go back on the assembly line, you might take issue with pundits who stick with findings of their research that equate none of this with personal happiness.
    I have a friend who describes Americans as a people who, despite evidence to the contrary, expect to be struck by luck any day and find themselves rich. He credits blind hope as the reason that many low income strugglers keep ignoring reality and the ballooning disparity between the rich and poor.
    But many of our readers are in their 50s and 60s and are on the brink of making life-altering decisions—who will care for our parents, do we downsize our homes, how do we manage our financial resources in the years ahead, how long will we be healthy, should we go back to school, can we retire, what do we want to do for the rest of our lives?
   The discussion we were having involved the meaning of it all. If we examine the national debt or the many scientific or philosophical ways of looking at where we are in 2011 and what we stand for, we may find ourselves bombarded with blasting ideological opinions of those who profess to know.
    And now to really confuse us, according to a recent article in Current Biology, researchers at the University College London say that psychological traits such as whether one is a liberal or conservative has a great deal to do with our biology—liberals have larger anterior cingulate cortexes (giving them a greater ability to cope with conflicting ideas) while conservatives have larger amygdalas (sensing greater threats from information).
   There are political candidates with brain areas the size we can only assume, waiting for an opportunity to spout off about social issues that represent a tiny fraction of the population and a tinier percentage of the national budget. Whether we fund NPR or the National Cancer Institutes—where we just happened to cut $333 million in funding (short-sighted in the whole scheme of future medical spending)—or want to loosen the Environmental Protection Agency, we have caved into the agendas of those who have financial reasons for their ideologies. Do we really want our children to drink toxic refuse from fracking so that energy businesses can make larger profits? Do we want to defund medical research just as scientists are making incredible inroads into finding genetic clues to major diseases?
  We have choices. Every week there seems to be another exciting archeological discovery that enlightens us to what our ancestors experienced and what paths they followed. We have but a tiny time on this planet. We can choose to follow uncreative paths and ignore our inner voices or we can leave our mark on the world. A cave painting. A child. A piece of pottery. Donating to a life-saving charity. Making a musical instrument. The arts are a great place to start. Curing disease and lifting up those who cannot do for themselves is a privilege.
    The New York Times recently wrote about the pressing problems of women and children in a Haitian refugee camp. They needed protection from rapists. They needed bright lights and a fence to keep them safe. This should not be a large problem for the world to solve. It should take us hours, not weeks, to protect these innocent victims. Protecting those who need our help should be imperative, regardless of our economic interests in that country. While oil is a convenient reason to get involved in another country’s problems, we shouldn’t wait for arms, oil or other private businesses to push us into doing the right thing.
   What we need to enlist is creativity to solve our most pressing problems. A military solution in Afghanistan will only leave the Afghans with drug lords to help them feed their families with opium profits. If we become involved in another country’s dilemmas, NALGO, the World Bank or the United Nations must try to  help them find creative solutions for their economic problems, otherwise, countries will continue to find themselves dependent on the same militants that threatened their societies.
   Oprah recently interviewed a guest who started given.org, a not-for-profit website that encourages followers to give to charities or even start their own foundations, partly in cooperation with a large number of corporations—including Macy’s, L.L. Bean and AT&T—that give a portion of their profits to the charities as their clients purchase goods and services. This marvelous idea can make anyone feel empowered to do good in the world.
   Another charity that contributes to helping end hunger in many countries is Heifer International, heifer.org, which enables donors to give animals—from goats to chickens and cows—to families in countries including Tanzania, so they can feed their families. A flock of chicks costs $20. A water buffalo is $250.
  These organizations can help lift those who need our aid. For those of us who are comfortable financially and who can afford to contribute, the need is great. For those of us with large anterior cingulate cortexes or those of us with larger amygdalas who haven’t decided how to spend the rest of our lives, we can take inspiration from those whose missions have taken their time to making lives better for those who ache for freedom and freedom from pain. But whether we admit it or not, what we create markets for—or what we vote for—we are all taxpayers and we make life or death decisions every day for those who need our help. We can use our creativity and make this a better world or we can spend our next few decades looking for an easier way to pass the time. But time is all we have. Let’s make it count so that decades from now our ancestors will feel inspired to carry our mission, whether it means finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, helping a society in war find peace or creating a cave painting.  

Published: June 13, 2011
Issue: Summer 2011