EDIT 22 Sep 2020: added a section on activism.
EDIT 2 Apr 2021: changed emphasis away from "This is a response to How Can We Love?.
Let's say you are motivated either by the MSLN motivational structure, or by Jesus' parable of the talents / minas, or other Biblical passages, or even perhaps by secular arguments like Peter Singer's Drowning Child Illustration. If this motivation is new to you, the circle of your concern has widened and/or the intensity of your commitment to helping has increased. What practical thing can you do, to act on that motivation? This post contains some basic ideas. I haven't tried all of the ideas here and I'm not very experienced in anything other than being a writer and having lived my particular life story, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
First I want to say that desire is more important than effect, in the long run. Good desire will lead to effectiveness, but a focus on effectiveness that neglects desire will leave you dead inside, and you will likely lose effectiveness and find it difficult to motivate yourself.
We think that desires are invalid without practical effect, but desires are valuable in themselves, and will naturally lead to effects when possible.
You have to safeguard your ability to desire. Perhaps at the very root of you, no one but you is responsible for your desires. But much of your mind can become discouraged or broken by the people you associate with, or the people you lack in your life who would have helped you if you knew them. Finding people who genuinely agree with your values is probably the most helpful thing in this area.
If you would like some suggestions of things to do, here are some below. I expect to update this page at some point, so check back to see what's new.
First of all, if you care about all the people on earth, and want to do something for them, you may think you should do something that involves going to another country. Perhaps being a missionary or working in the international development industry.
If you're good at the skills needed, you can go into medicine or agriculture in developing countries. If you have organizational abilities, you can be a program administrator. All of these things, working for a charity. You might make a good fundraiser for a charity. You may find work from a government agency. You can go to school for development.
I've heard from one development insider that they don't like random people coming into their field who don't know what they're doing. So that's something to think about.
Some development charities are effectively forms of agricultural or medical missions. In addition, you can work in a purely cultural way, in missions. You can do altruistic things from a Christian perspective, living in another country.
Being a missionary is not necessarily glamorous. You may have to work a day job that has little or nothing to do with ministry. You may have to raise support (mail or call or hang out with a lot of people to encourage donations).
People don't always like what foreigners do in their countries, and this applies to both development and missions. Being competent and culturally sensitive is important, and something you should try to learn from others instead of messing up yourself, if you can help it.
I wrote a book a while ago called How Can We Love?. It contains a section on "devastation" -- being broken down in a way that connects you with reality, seeing your brokenness, and the world's brokenness, and then seeing how to act. If you get what "devastation" is about, that's a good sign as far as being able to execute these roles. A spirit of sobriety, even if your work involves connecting with people, which can favor warmth.
One thing the roles have in common is being able to relate to a culture you were not born into. This is something not everyone can do effectively.
I studied international agricultural development at UC Davis and wanted to teach people better farming techniques. I'm more of a teacher by temperament. But I found out partway through that they really wanted program administrators. I finished the degree, but might have chosen something different if I'd known. You can save yourself a mistake like that by figuring out in advance what people in your prospective field actually do. Maybe see if you can interview someone who is working in that field.
(But then I looked up the two classmates whose names I could remember and saw that one of them works as an "agricultural research and training coordinator", and another one had been associated with a charity that teaches farmers better methods to use in small-scale agriculture -- the same thing that I wanted to do with my degree all along. It's possible that I could have worked for them, as either a teacher or teacher trainer, or perhaps there are other charities doing the same thing. The takeaway lesson for you from this paragraph may be the same as from the one before: look around, yourself, when considering career options. The person who told me that the IAD degree was for program administration and not teaching farmers was my major advisor.)
There can be risks to working in developing countries. Health risks, risks from crime, political risks, etc.
If I were talking to an 18-year-old who seemed to have the same basic interests as my 18-year-old self (interested in development or perhaps ag missions, going to a developing country), I would say "find an organization to learn from". It might be better to get hands-on experience at a low level in an actual organization (if they'll have you) before getting a degree. You'll have a better understanding of reality when you go to get your education, have more hooks to hang your learning on.
(If someone involved in missions or development happens to read this and wants to add to or correct these thoughts, please do so in the comments.)
I think in general it is best for people to solve their own problems. So it is better if people in developing countries (and developed countries) work on their own countries or regions. Nowadays, culture is globalizing more and more, and I can see the possibility of my writing (such as this post, or How Can We Love?) being read by English speakers outside the developed world. I do think there's a role for helping other cultures through roles like development and missions. On the other hand, sometimes when you help someone, it improves their agency, and sometimes it doesn't. So that's something to consider. I think it could be good to connect people in different countries in a common altruistic culture, to talk about these issues and share inspiration.
Another role for "devastation" type people could be political leader, or some other kind of leader (business, academia, etc.). Leaders need to be able to take on stress and risk, have integrity but also know how to be effective with other people, be willing to take a fall for what's right, and... I think there are other things I'm not thinking of (this is an area I might explore more later).
I would say, do this if you're willing to live a life like Jesus (potentially being in the public eye, potentially working to exhaustion, potentially having a kind of Gethsemane or crucifixion). And, at the same time, you still need to be able to be into effectiveness, organizational skills, have command of facts, and be sober. It's certainly not for everyone.
It's not uncommon for political leaders to go through many years of being more or less an apprentice. You have to become acculturated to the system (and yet not really acculturated) in order to change it.
A business leader needs to be able to run a business. Academic leaders generally need to have academic careers. Military leaders need to work through the military. There are already a lot of resources available on leadership, and I haven't read much of them. But I may be interested in thinking and writing more in that area, at some point.
(If you are in a position of leadership and wish to add to or correct the above, please do so in the comments.)
If you get involved in politics, you might do so at the level of activism, as a political foot-soldier or organizer. I think this could be a good thing if you keep the attitude of "devastation" in mind. Politics is like war, a way of applying force to other people.
Just as it makes sense for there to be people who work within military culture to make it better, so there should be people who work within political culture to make it better.
You can try to "earn-to-give". This is a term taken from the effective altruist movement (who might make an interesting study for people interested in the question of what to do with their lives or resources).
The basic idea of "earn-to-give" is that you earn as much money as you can, and then spend a modest amount on yourself, and either give the difference now to worthy charities, or save your money to give later (perhaps in your estate), or a mixture of the two. Figuring out worthy charities is an interesting task, and the effective altruists have some secular suggestions. If you want a Christian perspective, I know of the National Christian Foundation, which talks about giving -- don't know much about it, though.
If you work at a job and get paid a lot for it, it's society's way of telling you "we really wanted this job done, and you did it". If you can do a good job at a high-paying job, you may be doing good by building the economy. And then you can also give from your high salary. The jobs that you can get that pay the most are likely ones that use some or all of your talents.
Some jobs harm more people than they help, but most are beneficial at least by helping to build the economy. If you do your job well, you're providing more value for what people are paying you. Some of that value trickles up to your employer or their shareholders. But some of it "trickles out" to your customers or clients. Providing more benefit for the same price, or for a lower price, helps with domestic poverty, an issue which can distract from global poverty if unresolved.
Out of whatever money you do earn, or have, you can give.
You can try the biblical tithe of giving 10% of what you earn or spend in a year. I've tried this, and have given to World Bible School, Oxfam, Modest Needs, GiveDirectly, and Homeless Empowerment through Art and Leadership-San Diego recently.
(Worldwide House Church has a list of charities you might find useful.)
If you can't give 10%, you can give less. Even a token amount, like $50 a year. (Which, if you multiply by the 100 million lowest-earning Americans comes out to $5 billion a year.) This helps tell yourself "I am the kind of person who gives", and if you ever end up with more money, you can give more.
Another possible thing to pursue is art. Some artists have to live the life of Jesus. Most don't, don't attain that level of celebrity. (Or they do live the life of Jesus, but in relative obscurity.) Most never become popular.
Art is a burden. So if you have the burden, what do you do with it? One thing you can try to do is to make the best art you can. You can contribute to a scene. Your art can help change the background mood of the culture, and this change may reap big dividends in terms of people becoming more alive. One need that might need to be met is, what kind of art is helpful to people in adversity? Specifically, what kind of art can be helpful in ways that art doesn't do as well at in the current culture. I would say (in 2020), with a little bit of inaccuracy, that we're good at making music that helps you escape, or live through your feelings as a "small person", but not as much at making music that helps people get to work. A long time ago, marches were popular. That exact form may not work now (and the vibe of the "march-like" activity of that time period had problems, so it may be just as well), but what's something that's similarly invigorating, helping people work? That would be one aesthetic challenge. Others could involve trying to make music that helps people become holy. (Music just being one example.)
As an artist, you starve for money, but most essentially, you can starve for an audience. It is good to try to build scenes. If you can connect enough people to each other, the fact that you connected them probably predisposes them to take in your art. You can make art specifically in order to bring people together. (I've seen an art collective in Southern California try that, called "Just Tryna Make Friends".)
You can also try to build scenes, even if you aren't an artist. You could try to be a traditional church planter, or you could try to connect unchurched Christians to each other, outside the traditional church. Or you can find a secular affinity with which to connect people.
I have more thoughts about Christian scenes, which I hope to remember to write about.
You may be a thinker. Like art, being a thinker is a burden. So again, how can you use that? Maybe I shouldn't tell you how, because you can figure that out, as a thinker, and need to go your own way. It's important for there to be thinkers who put God first, who are also altruistic.
You can try to build "friendship skills". There are some skills which people who are "really good friends" have. For instance, therapist, social worker, caregiver, teacher, life coach... To become a professional in any of these fields may be too much for you (or it may not be). If it is, then you may still benefit by learning some of the skills of some or all of these roles. Then you will be better equipped to handle the (fairly likely) event that you have to take these roles on in an informal way. If you are an older person with some experience in these areas, you can teach them.
The better your skills are, the more you can help your friends, or find new ones.
(Translating (for instance) "therapist skills that work in a therapy situation" to "therapist skills that work in a friendship situation" may require some thought and care.)
"Friendship skills" has a natural continuity with "family skills", like parenting or being a child or sibling, and they can be approached in a similar way.
In any role, developing your own trustworthiness is good, so that you are a reliable person. You can end up spending a long period of your life developing trustworthiness and self-trust, just to enable you to go out and be effective without betraying people. There's some danger in becoming self-focused in working on yourself. But there's value in desiring to be someone who is trustworthy, and sometimes working on that.
Trustworthiness has a big overlap with holiness. If you are truly holy, you will be trustworthy, at least in having pure intentions. If you are truly trustworthy, you direct people toward the goal of human development, which is to become holy, set apart to God. That will be your goal, and you will have gone a certain way down that path. If your intentions are impure, you will betray someone.
Holiness in yourself is sometimes found by seeking it directly, but more often by seeking something outside yourself, by not being self- focused.
You can pray. Prayer is a helpful element in all of the above, because God cares more about people than you do, and you are not God. God can help you care. In the end, the altruism that matters most is to connect people to God. So you should connect yourself to him.
Prayer is sometimes effective in ways that you can see. It's not likely that if you pray there will be a miraculous rain in a drought-stricken place, because of your prayer. But someone might be struck by the fact of drought and get involved in helping people in drought-stricken places because of prayer. (That's what I expect, as a contemporary person. I think it's possible that God does not, or cannot, act in the most obvious ways in our time. But it does seem that God is limited by our faith -- which I think means that if you choose to approach God, and God chooses to approach you, you may develop a relationship through which his power can flow into the world.)
Prayer can perform the impossible, like keeping you true to your calling.
Scene building and friendship/family skill building work hand in hand and along with giving something to charity, and prayer, are things that just about any person can pursue to some extent. They support the work that more direct helpers do, in addressing issues around the world.
For instance, someone growing up in a culture where it's expected that you do something, and one thing you might do is work in the development industry, will go that way instead of into business or academia, which might have been the default paths. The scene is where the culture is, so someone has to build that scene. Or someone whose life is rough or undernourished might not make it into an altruistic career path for a long time, cutting back on their long-term effectiveness. But friendship skill-building can make it so that the people around them aren't as bad for them, or are more good for them, and they can cope or grow better themselves. Earn-to-give can fund charities or missions. Prayer supports a climate of trusting concern.
One important thing that most or all of the above roles have some bearing on is dealing with long-term or future issues. Here are a few things to think about: AI (technological unemployment, or even transformative AI), climate change. There are big problems like political / cultural polarization. Racism, sexism, and whatever other cultural problems. And there may be other things to add to the list.
One thing I think is true about many lists is that they can be added to, and should not be seen as exhaustive. So if you think of something to try that's not on this list, it could be a good idea.