In many ways, I am typical of the effective altruism community: an educated professional born in the developed world who eventually turned my analytical skills on my historically haphazard relationship to charity. But, unlike most in the community, I am significantly disabled and rarely leave my home.
I was born lucky. Born in the United States to two parents with graduate degrees, I received a top-quality education, traveled, adventured, became a civil rights lawyer at a young age, spent several years flying from Mississippi to Arizona to Florida to investigate and litigate federal court cases. I had student loans and expenses, but made in the top 30% of U.S. incomes and the top 0.1% worldwide.
Then, in my late 20s, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. After a series of surgeries to remove and then rebuild the parts of my pelvis and abdomen where the cancer was located, I cannot sit or climb stairs regularly, and I experience frequent burning and stabbing pain in one of my legs due to nerve damage. The limb is sensitive to touch, and my immune system is suppressed, so I seldom go anywhere except to hospitals.
The past two years have been challenging. Medical professionals’ predictions about my health and mobility have, at times, been dark. And my physical world has become very small: the confines of my apartment, the insides of friends’ cars driving me to and from doctors’ appointments.
Yet this experience has also taught me that I am still one of the lucky ones. I have health insurance and have received world-class medical care. I have a supportive community and a loving family. I have a workplace that has allowed me to continue my cases entirely from home. Few in the world have such privileges.
And so I have been able to craft a life for myself within the four walls of my apartment. Just as in the homes of other lucky, but able-bodied, people, there are books and movies and dinners and laughter and joy. And like other lucky, but able-bodied, people whose jobs are dedicated to social justice, I am still able to help others professionally.
But unlike those other lucky, but able-bodied, people, I am unable to go out into the world, to engage with people who are not already in my community. For someone whose time was once spent traveling the country, interviewing complainants in mobile home parks, holding community meetings in churches and schools and rec centers, negotiating settlements and speaking at conferences, my current restrictions are stark.
These twin recognitions – first, that in spite of my health struggles, I remain one of the most privileged people on the planet, and second, that my physical isolation has made me crave engagement with the world – led me to Giving What We Can.
Giving What We Can allows me to feel connected to the world in multiple ways. Through its integration in the effective altruism community, it has brought me to organizations such as GiveWell, which allow me to choose where I give in an empirically and emotionally satisfying manner. And through the public pledge and deliberate creation of a community of giving, it has allowed me to feel connected to people all over the world who are also committed to making the world significantly better.
Although my physical world is circumscribed, through this community of giving, I have been able to access a very real world, even if I can’t see it. In that very real world, the giving I can do matters. Doing so has lifted me out of myself and out of the pain and fear. It has kept me connected to the world, and reminded me that no matter my own ability level, I can still help others. I feel fortunate to have a community and a cause so worth believing in, one that is big enough to buoy me out of any personal darkness.
Zoe Savitsky is part of a group of people within the Giving What We Can community who cannot meet in person due to health, geographic, or other restrictions, but who are coming together using technology to share stories, support, information, and more. If you are interested in connecting with this group, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.