What becomes painfully obvious, after just a short stay in Malawi, is it is not remotely possible to help everyone who is in need, as the needs so far outstrip the resources available for addressing them. This, of course, is not unique to Malawi—the same could be said of any country in the world, and at any time in world history. Yet in Malawi, due to the crushing, and pervasive poverty, the signs of the problem are more visible, and many stem from the struggle to secure life’s most basic needs—shelter, clean water, food and health. But what impact does this have upon the mind set of those interested in helping?
For some this truism can become a crippling realization. If you can’t come close to helping those in need, what is the point of trying? The job at hand is overwhelming—indeed, so large it is impossible to know where to start. What is the point of feeding one orphan or helping one orphanage, when literally thousands are left uncared for? Why should one attempt to supply bags of maize to one village of starving Malawians along the Shirer River, when there are hundreds of similar villages, also on the edge of starvation? Initially, those wanting to help are left aching, recognizing that however much one may care, it really won’t make much of a difference what you, or for that matter anyone else, tries to do. Many people will die, regardless of one’s efforts. So over time that initial ache has to change into something else if one is going to survive. And, for many, the answer seems to be an enervating numbness, leaving one emotionally drained, discouraged, distant and finally uncaring. There is only so much emotional pain one can take before shutting down. It doesn’t take much, under the circumstances, for those, who might otherwise be willing to look beyond themselves, to turn back to their own affairs, building up emotional walls to shield them from further pain. This is not dissimilar from the emotional detachment that surgeons appear to develop to cope with what might otherwise be the unbearable pain of seeing too much human agony.
So how and why do people help despite the overwhelming odds? Some version of this parable almost everyone has heard. A powerful night storm has driven thousands of starfish up on the shore well above the high tide mark. Without the tide to return them to the sea, they will die later in the day under the scorching sun. An old man, as is his habit, walks down the beach, and sees in the distance a young boy approaching him, who stops from time to time, throwing starfish back into the sea. Intrigued by the odd behavior, the old man asks, “Good morning, may I ask what you are doing.” In reply, the young boy says, “Throwing starfish into the sea. They have been washed up the beach and can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I threw them back into the water.” Perhaps, hoping to teach a tough lesson to one so young, the old man points to the hopelessness of the task: “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on the beach. I am afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” If the old man expects much realism, he is in for a disappointment. Stooping again, picking up yet another starfish, the young boy heaves it as far out into the ocean as he can. Then, turning to the old man, he smiles and says: “It made a difference to that one.”
Like many similar parables, this one, though maudlin, captures a sentiment we all find noble and uplifting. Sure, this life is tough, and its problems well beyond the reach of any of us to solve, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to do good? Every little bit helps--it certainly helps the one or the few we are able to touch through our humble efforts. At least they are saved. But more than that, it helps to encourage others to do the same and, if everyone did his little part, all of the little parts would add up to something quite dramatic. So just because we ourselves can’t solve all the problems doesn’t mean we should give up trying to solve a few of them. One cannot always see the end from the beginning, and the beginning requires faith and more than a little persistence.
The parable is, however, like many similar ones—it doesn’t sound quite “right.” It is hard to believe the young boy will spend much time on the beach. Sooner or later, probably after an hour or so, he will tire of bending, snatching and throwing starfish. Or he will get frustrated or discouraged by the enormity of the task. Or perhaps he will be annoyed because others do not join him in his quest because they lack his vision. In the end, he will move on to something more realistic—likely something more focused on his needs than the needs of others. That seems to be the way of things in this world. It requires an extraordinary effort to place the things of the world aside to help others less fortunate. And, as a consequence, thousands upon thousands of starfish will die, since no one was there to do what they cannot do for themselves.
The way most of us attack the problem of “futility”—dealing with tasks way beyond our reach—is by carving up the world into tiny, manageable pieces. We draw boundaries around the problems, so that we can get a handle on them. So rather than trying to help with all the orphans in Malawi, or all the orphans in Blantyre, we tackle working with two specific orphanages in Mbayani—one with 160 children and the other with 90 children. Or rather than working with all of the members in Malawi, or all in Blantyre, we are assigned to work solely with the members in Blantyre 2nd and Zingwangwa. Doing so allows us to work on manageable projects, within realistic and doable timeframes, and hopefully with the resources at hand or readily obtainable. This, of course, is precisely what has happened to us as “senior missionaries.” Life was easiest for us when we focused exclusively on Zingwangwa members for the first five months, harder when we picked up Blantyre 2nd as a second branch to support, and even harder when the office couple function for Blantyre was shifted to us. But, fortunately, even with three assignments we could manage to keep our heads above water—busy but not insanely so. Were we to add to our current workload helping with the Blantyre 1st and Ndirande Branches, supporting the Liwonde Group, and picking up the slack to help with the seminary and institute programs in Malawi, the assignment the Merrills had before returning to the United States in mid-June, what is currently manageable would become unmanageable, and what is rewarding would become frustrating. Setting reasonable boundaries to one’s charitable service is key to personal sanity and satisfaction; it is akin to marking off a portion of the beach, asking the young boy to clear that portion of all stranded starfish, returning them to the sea before the brutal sun does its nasty work.
What are those boundaries and how are they defined? No single answer works. For us the boundaries are in part set by energy, vision, and the hours of the day. Every senior missionary carves out his or her own plan. What drives us forward are the daily rewards we see from working with the members—a little step here, a little step there. You put aside the bigger problem that is beyond your reach.
(a) Meaning of Relative Fairness
Whenever charity or service is directed towards a definable group of individuals (such as branch members, an orphanage, the residents of a community), “relative fairness” seems to raise its hoary head. It is something the dispensers of charity or service have to worry about because of the pettiness to which we all are subject. As individuals, we may think, of course, of our well-being in absolute terms—do we have adequate shelter, access to clean water, enough food to eat to stave off starvation, the chance to go to school, or reasonable opportunities to find employment. We are not happy with our lot in life, if these basic necessities are not met. But, at the same time, that is not the only measure we use to determine our satisfaction in life. We are constantly “comparing” our standard of living with those who we consider to be our peers (however we define that group). So even if we have “enough” of the basic necessities, we may be very disappointed with our standing if we feel that others, who are in our peer group, are doing better than ourselves. So satisfaction is determined by comparisons to others in respect to some dimension we consider important—if we are faring better than peer group members, we are “happy,” content and satisfied. On the other hand, if we have fallen behind peer group members, we are unhappy, disappointed and unsatisfied. Having enough, getting by, even thriving, are not sufficient to take away the sting of “falling” behind the group.
Some become so possessed by these comparisons, competitors in their core, that they are not happy or content being above the average or norm of the peer group, but instead must feel as though they are at or near the top of the heap. Otherwise, they are tormented by feelings of jealousy, pettiness, and insecurity. They are constantly comparing themselves with others, largely for the purpose of personal aggrandizement. They take pleasure in thinking themselves superior to peer group members, and suffer terribly when feeling that some or many peer group members have done better than they. Only by putting others down do they feel secure.
Sometimes these comparisons are done subtly, even in the privacy of our homes. With guilty delight, we gossip about others’ problems and misfortunes. All the while, privately we feel smug, thankful we do not have the same struggles—and such thankfulness, rather than being true gratitude, is a nasty case of superiority. Upon reflection, most of us know there is nothing healthy about these feelings—where self-worth is constantly measured by a scale of venal comparison of our status and position in life against that of others. At their core, these feelings stem from vanity, self-centeredness and basic insecurity.
(b) Identifying the Peer Group
Of course, “relative fairness” can only be applied when it is possible to identify in some reasonable way the composition of the “peer group.” All of us have numerous peer groups to which we look for making relative comparisons as to those dimensions we deemed significant. When in school, our peers are classmates; at work, our colleagues or those having similar job descriptions; at Church, members of our branch or ward. Those interested in advancing in Church positions may think of their peer group as men or women of a certain comparable age bracket, residing within the Stake or District.
The composition of these peer groups are “self-determined.” No one on the outside imposes an external scheme we are forced to use in determining who precisely our peers are for any particular purpose. The groups are amorphous, are frequently changing and may be overlapping. At the same time, different peer groups are used for different comparisons—schoolmates for how are we doing in school; colleagues for how well we are being compensated at work; neighbors for how we are prospering; club members for how we fit in socially; Church members for how we are advancing in Church positions or how we are perceived as being righteous, faithful or worthy. Sometimes the boundaries of the peer group are fairly obvious—for example, when it comes to work compensation, individuals working in the same office, holding the same title, of roughly the same tenure, are natural peer group members. Interesting enough, most individuals are smart enough not to define peer groups in crazy ways; were they to do so they would never be content. For example, entry level employees never would think to include the chief executive officers in their peer group for compensation purposes. Nor would poor Malawians include wealthy Asians, high ranking politicians, or Western expats in their peer group for style of life comparisons.
(c) How We View Others’ Good Fortune
This vicious habit of “comparing” ourselves with others makes it difficult for many to accept, without reservation, others’ good fortune. Their good fortune is not just a boon to them and their families; at the same time, it nudges them higher on the prosperity scale, moving them either closer to us (hence a threat) or further ahead of us (hence a “put down”). When we are obsessed with such comparisons, we find it impossible to think about “others” without at the same time thinking about “ourselves,” because at the end of the day, everything is really about us. Our neighbors are either coming closer or moving further away from our position on the prosperity scale. And, consistent with this discussion, each time something of value is conveyed to another member of the Church, two things are at stake: first, the recipient’s status is somehow enhanced (i.e., the recipient receives some benefit, something of value—whether it be esteem, money, prestige, honor, recognition); and second, the one making the comparison feel he or she is somehow diminished. This occurs even though the benefit bestowed has nothing whatsoever to do with the one making the comparison.
(d) Possible Dimensions for Comparison Within the Church
Without too much extrapolation, it is easy to see how such comparisons can come to play among Church members. There are lots of ways in which Malawi members can compare themselves with other local members—such comparisons can be made in terms of (i) access to financial benefits that are available through the Church (welfare assistance, PEF loans, contract jobs from the Church); (ii) holding positions in the Church, especially those regarded as prominent or high profile; (iii) getting financial support (loans or gifts) from senior missionaries, even if they are requested not to provide such support; and (iv) being visited by the Church leaders and other members. Members can also compete with one another for social standing within the Church. Each of these dimensions is or may be considered by some to represent something “of value.”
(e) Those Not Driven By Considerations of Relative Fairness
Not all members are driven by these comparisons; some are closer to the Lord’s ideal, rejoicing in others’ successes, and mourning with others’ sorrows. What happens to another is not a reflection upon themselves. Some take genuine pleasure in others’ good fortune. They don’t feel envious, or slighted, or offended, when others get benefits that they themselves might be seeking. They don’t blame the Church for their status. They do not expect everyone to be treated identically, even if they are basically in the same situation. Yet, on the other hand, some are consumed by these comparisons. One who does not have a PEF loan, or whose application has recently been denied, may feel resentful, upon learning of another’s success in getting a PEF loan from the Church. So pettiness, envy, spite, ill-will may surface if Church members are obsessed by what their neighbors get and receive. Why should senior missionaries visit some members and not others? Why do some receive welfare assistance when others do not? Is it fair when the Church hires the same members, over and over again, to do projects for the Church, when others in the community might be equally qualified?
(f) Worrying About How Members May React—Care When Dispensing Benefits—Equitable Treatment
The Church must of course be mindful of the humanness of its members. Some members may be prone to making comparisons, even if doing so is wrong. In view of this, should the Church consider offering benefits to some members, when it is not in a position to offer the same benefits to others? As a practical matter, trying to treat everyone is the Church identically is unwieldy and impractical? It is impossible to making everything “equal,” even when people are basically in the same position. Moreover, there are always differences between individuals and families, and what we might see as “same circumstances” may in fact not be. Not all widows and widowers are alike—some may be in need of more help than others.
Furthermore, even when the circumstances are fundamentally similar, should one be constrained from helping out, where help is needed, just because one may not be in position to do the same from someone else, who has or may in the future have a similar need? Applying an “equity” standard might mandate this result, or suggest that the benefit be allocated based on chance. But is this really the right outcome? Shouldn’t one be entitled help where there is a need, without worrying about offending those who are not getting the same help? Demanding “fair treatment” may be the same as denying treatment or watering it down so much as to be unhelpful. Yet one must be wise and consider the weakness of the saints. It is likely that there is not a simple answer to the question. One must exercise judgment and prudence in proceeding, helping where one can, without offending others.
Another variant of same dilemma is whether one should refrain from giving help to someone in need, because giving such help, to the same person or others similarly situated, may not be possible in the future? Not infrequently we have heard of the dangers of helping out when there might be a risk that future senior missionaries may not be in a position to provide the same or similar treatment? The fear is that of creating unrealistic expectations, either on the part of the aid recipients or on the part of others who might find themselves in need of similar assistance in the future.
(g) Controlling the Fund of Information—Keeping Benefits Confidental
Another common approach for controlling the problem is that of controlling the flow of information. Often those helped are asked to keep confidential, both the fact they have been helped but also the details regarding the assistance they received. This is done to manage expectations within the group and to reduce intra-group rivalries, pettiness and jealousies.
 As we have mentioned before, such comparisons are rarely made by members living in the United States. There the Church is rarely thought of a potential source for getting money or securing financial benefits.
 Within the Malawi culture, it is considered an honor to receive a visit from someone who is thought to have higher status. The same is true in the United States. In addition, visits from others, including neighbors, friends, and members, are considered very important as a way of honoring the family, in the event of deaths.