Saturday, November 23, 2013

669 lives

In 1938, a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton was about to go on skiing vacation in Switzerland when a friend asked him to come to Prague instead. He arrived at a Czech refugee camp instead of his planned ski trip. The camp was filled with Jewish families trying to escape before the Germans arrived. In Winton's words, “I felt compelled to do something.”

He spent the next nine months using his money and organizational skills to arrange for hundreds of children to be evacuated by train and fostered by British families. He was 29 years old. He saved 669 children that year.  And afterwards, he didn't tell anyone what he had done.

50 years later, his wife discovered his journals in a briefcase in the attic. The children's names were in a scrapbook he had kept.  Here's footage of Winton realizing he's sitting next to dozens of the now-grown children:

We talk about “lives saved.” Mentally, I know that this year my donations will save several people's lives, and keep many more from getting sick. But it's so different to actually see those people assembled in a room.

Winton is still alive at age 104, and the children he saved are themselves old. One became a member of Parliament, another a groundbreaking geneticist, another a journalist and author. And most of them went on to do nothing especially remarkable except grow up, go to school, work, get married, have children, and generally do the things people enjoy doing when they don't die at age 6.

Recently someone asked me if it wasn't rather limiting, not getting to do as much travel as I might if I didn't donate. It's hard to imagine that Nicholas Winton regrets giving up his ski trip.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

But what will my friends think?

This week I talked to some students about what life is like for my husband and me as people who give away a lot of our income.  Some of them seemed worried about the social consequences: what happens when your friends all have expensive houses and cars? Won't you feel left out? Won't people think you're strange?

I don't remember exactly what my answer was at the time, but here are some better-thought-out ones:

A lot of our friends are also on small budgets.
The bartender? The grad student? The novelist? The one whose job you can't really describe, but it involves postmodernism?  They're not rolling in cash. Unless you actually reach a point when all your friends are corporate lawyers, you probably won't be the only one living frugally.

A lot of our friends are a little weird, too.
We have a friend who commutes to work by unicycle. Another friend believes bacon is a health food and eats it in according quantities. Another friend is a professional blacksmith. Maybe it's just living in the neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, but there are a lot of eccentric people around. I don't mind being one of them.

You can have fun with your friends for cheap.  
  • A lot of our friends are from the folk dance scene.  It doesn't cost much money, and participants tend to come from a wide variety of income levels.  It's not that easy to pick out who's a psychiatrist and who's an art teacher.  
  • I enjoy cooking, so we often have people over for dinner rather than going to a restaurant.  
  • Jeff and two of his college roommates have a standard arrangement whenever their wives are out of town: the bachelor-for-a-day invites the others over, and they play board games their wives don't like.  
Your friends aren't always into conspicuous consumption.
Jeff works as a computer programmer, and in his thrift-store work clothes he actually looks less scruffy than most of his coworkers.

There are lots of metrics to compare people on.
I have a partner I love. My parents are alive and healthy. I have all my teeth. There are lots of ways you can compare yourself to other people   you'll come out ahead on some, and behind on some. That's true no matter your income.

Some of your friends will follow you.
We've heard friend say they admire us for following our principles.  And some of them say they've changed because of us  looking for more effective charities, giving more, or asking people to donate instead of giving them birthday presents.  I love hearing that.

We've met some awesome people through giving.
Since we started meeting other people who are interested in effective altruism, we've really clicked with some of them. After college I missed being able to talk ideas with people, and effective altruism has brought that back into my life.  (The downside: you have to get over your stage fright about talking to people with impressive credentials. It turns out most of them are regular people.)