I would not speak of this dilemma if it were only mine, but I watch many others race again and again through the cycle of widening concern, frenzied effort, and exhaustion. Whatever the source of conscience—parents, God, solemn books, earnest friends, the dictates of biology—it is adapted to a narrower space than the one we inhabit. Limited to a small tribe or a community of a few hundred people, conscience may prompt us to serve others in a balanced and wholesome way. But when television and newspapers and the Internet bring us word of dangers by the thousands and miseries by the millions and needful creatures by the billions; when pleas for help reach us around the clock; when aching faces greet us on every street—then conscience either goes numb or punishes us with a sense of failure.
I often lie awake at night, rehearsing the names of those I’ve disappointed by failing to give them all they asked. I don’t say this to make myself out as a generous soul. I am hardly that; I feel defenseless rather than virtuous. The truth is that I’ve come to fear the claims that other beings make on me, because their numbers grow relentlessly. I wish to love my neighbor, but the neighborhood has expanded so far, and the neighbors have become so many, that my love is stretched to the breaking point. I’m tempted to run away, beyond reach of the needy voices. So I make of this hut a hiding place.