Venturing beyond our walls
Posted by Thomas Mitchell
on Monday, April 06, 2015
It was only a matter of time until Siddhārtha Gautama would leave the palace in which he was raised. No matter how luxurious the place you live in or how much others try to shelter you, people have a natural curiosity for knowledge of what lies on the other side. Siddhārtha saw human suffering.
And so do we.
So why, today, is it easier to not see human suffering than it was for a prince so long ago? Perhaps when we consider poverty a distant and eternal problem, we can pretend to not have responsibility for its continuance?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I don’t need to know. The questions themselves are wrong – poverty isn't distant and it’s not eternal.
I’m in my last year of compulsory education. It is the year of 18th birthday celebrations, and there are three big questions: who can throw the biggest party? who can provide the most alcohol? and whose party will be the most memorable?
Opulent festivities are one way of celebrating the gradual passage into adulthood. Indeed, turning 18 is a momentous occasion, so I wanted to be able to remember the process for my entire life. I scoured the internet after school one evening and discovered the story of the Buddha – I appreciated the value of money in changing lives, but I wanted to understand what Siddhārtha really ‘saw’ when he left his palace. I searched, ‘What can I do to help save a life?’, and I found the perfect project, from the same philosopher I wrote about in my ethics essay that very morning.
Peter Singer’s ‘The Life You Can Save' was my decision. I approached my teachers and asked to speak about the project to the sixth form. They were incredibly supportive and before long I was standing in front of a few hundred pupils showing them this video and speaking about the monumental difference the individual can make without affecting their own quality of life. While shaking and stuttering, I urged them to donate, but even more importantly, to see - to begin the journey outside the palace.
I sold Christmas cards bought from charity stores, and my friends sold sweets, cakes and organised a lucky dip with me at charity fayres. The grand prize from the dip was a bottle of pristine white wine donated to the cause by my parents. Naturally my dad’s excitement grew throughout the day as no one had yet won the much coveted prize he hoped would return to the household. My fellow card-seller drew the winning ticket the moment before departure, much to the aromatic chagrin of my Château d'Yquem-less father.
After a few weeks, my friends started to give me money so I would stop asking them to buy five cards for a pound! This meant that though a few friends and I sold about 500 cards, most of our funds were from perseverance, resolve and the generosity of others. And what fruits did those labours produce?
Together we raised £1,500, but to many that is just a number; so let me tell you what charities were able to achieve with these funds (I divided the money fairly evenly between charities recommended by The Life You Can Save).
Around four children were provided with school meal programs for one year, and two received specialized sight-restoring paediatric surgery and follow-up care. An incredible 2,500 children are being de-wormed, and 280 were protected for one year from schistosomiasis and life-threatening diseases it causes such as bladder cancer, kidney malfunction, and spleen damage.
A research organization is using the money to work toward discovering and promoting the next effective solutions to global poverty problems. Another gave money directly to a family in extreme poverty to use as they wish; giving them this freedom has been shown to increase recipients' assets, food security and mental health.
There’s more - eight Interventions were provided to save or improve sight for those with failing vision or curable blindness, as well as 13 vital eye screenings. 75 bed-nets were given to those living in malaria-stricken areas, protecting 135 people from infected mosquitos for an average of three to four years. Seven anaesthetists are now ready to perform urgent fistula surgeries. 
Seeing is believing, but it’s not knowing. Siddhārtha didn't just see human suffering, he knew it too. I must confess – I’m still firmly sheltered within the confines of my palace. When I venture outside I am frightened and overwhelmed. I understand why humans build walls to escape from this infinity of indigence.
Yet the world as it appears and the world as it is are very different. We are remarkably lucky just to be born in a comparatively rich country and to be educated in a society where my teachers support me in raising money for places we haven’t been and people we haven’t met. When Siddhārtha left the palace, he faced the heartless poverty outside his walls. That poverty is now wearing a mask and it doesn't feel so close.
But it is close.
Those distant towns are not so distant; those people in far off countries are not so far from our doorstep. Our ephemeral palaces will one day fall, whether we venture outside or not. There are lives we can save and the magic is that it does not harm us in any way. The suffering we see should not induce fear but compel us to seek its end.
The fear of exiting my palace is hard to overcome alone. The great realisation for me is that I was never alone. A difference has been made and will continue to be made, and I only have my friends and family to thank.