The Spiritual Tension of Local Loyalty and Global Responsibility

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 4:00 pm

The Spiritual Tension of Local Loyalty and Global Responsibility

I’ve become increasingly convinced that one of the biggest challenges of our time, if not the biggest challenge of our time, is this: We live in a world that has grown ever smaller, both in terms of our internet-fueled scope of awareness and our shared threats — think climate change, nuclear war, infectious diseases. But we are less healthy, less happy, and less safe if we bequeath all of our precious attention to global matters, neglecting the ground beneath our feet.

I would even go so far as to say that we are less deep people if we don’t struggle with the texture of “the local.” It’s where the potential for the most intimate pains and transformational growth lie. It’s where “our people” are — warts, wounds, and all. And yet, if we become myopic in focus, we can let these pains shrink our empathy. We can become territorial, tribal — cut off from the cosmic sweep of environmental, economic, and spiritual crises that we share with 7.6 billion other human beings on the planet.

At this point, that beloved phrase of the 1970s may be surfacing in your brain: “Think global, act local.” Is it really so hard? This is an and/both situation.

Indeed, but what does it actually mean in this moment? What does that deceptively simple phrase tell me about how to wake up in the morning and consume news? I want to be an accountable citizen, and yet, who am I accountable to? And how can I maintain any semblance of well-being if I offer up my conscience to every tragedy that I have access to through the Internet?

What about my other precious resources: my work, my money? Is my energy better spent trying to feed the people in my own city, or are the hungry here quite high on the totem pole of suffering? Peter Singer’s “effective altruism” framework would tell me that it is those who are the most hungry that should get the most resources, regardless of the geography of the giver. The logical part of me gets this, but the me that drives by homeless folks as I take my daughter to school each morning hurts, wonders what lesson I am teaching her with my indifference to proximate suffering.

Which is all to say, I suppose, that one can understand the wisdom of an and/both approach to this terrible, beautiful world, but the limitations of our time, energy, and money are real. If I think about my grandparents’ lives, my parents’ lives, and mine, I can see how each generation has psychically expanded — growing more globally aware, more globally convicted — but also, how each generation has grown more confused about the contours of local thriving. It’s as if at the very heart of this conundrum is the sense that we are both everybody and nobody — these intellectual and cultural consumers at the broadest levels who struggle mightily to put our hands in the right dirt next to the right neighbors.

I can’t tell you how many people of a wide variety of ages, whom I know right now, are deliberating about where to live with a tremendous amount of angst. Stay near my birthplace, my family, or spread my wings and accept that my professional success and my own story play out somewhere else? Move to be near my children and grandchildren, giving up a home, a community, a landscape I’ve always known, or live out the last of my days among that which I’ve invested in longest? These are not just questions of personal happiness; to my mind, they are questions of 21stcentury meaning-making.

We are, each of us in different ways and with different dressing, asking: Who am I? What am I for? Who am I for? In what place(s)?    

At the Obama Foundation Summit last week, Anand Giridharadas touched on this in his riveting opening talk, the full text of which you should definitely read if this conundrum feels alive for you, too. He writes:

“Many change makers no longer ask what they owe a community, but where they can find the highest marginal impact. I wonder if the values of optimization and effectiveness have caused some change-makers to forget the value of loyalty.”

Loyalty, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is a red-state virtue. Perhaps. But I also think it’s a value that is being remade for absolutely everyone by the technological advancements and environmental threats we face. At its worst, it can feel like a cruel new math of care. I am exposed to the suffering of many, but can only attend to a few. The gap weighs heavy and unresolved on my relatively small, human heart. It also makes me feel the catastrophic vulnerability of anonymity. When the apocalypse comes, who will hold my hand?

At its best, it feels like a spiritual crisis of such depth and breadth that it might just remake us.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    The question of how best to allocate care and effort has been very present over the ages rather than peculiar to the time in which we live, so many ancient traditions have possible answers. I know in observant Judaism there is a concept of tikkun olam, or healing the Earth, that is resolved by suggesting specialization. Some people will focus, say, on healing the sick, others on hospitality, others perhaps on feeding the hungry. It is a recognition that no one can do it all but among them, they will be spread across all needs.
    Similarly, and someone should step in and correct me if I am wrong, orders of nuns tend to be specialized in particular areas of humanitarian effort rather than attempting to spread themselves across all areas of need. One order might deal with health care and another with feeding the hungry.
    In secular settings, a person who chooses as her mission to serve as a nurse at a community clinic will not also typically be able to work extensively on literacy with kids living in housing projects, but another person will work in that setting allowing the nurse to focus her skills where she does, while another will serve as a companion at a recovery center for people struggling with addiction or mental illness.
    My mother always said, though not in English, one cannot at once sit with one behind in multiple places.
    The question of reining in the instinct to focus intensively on “me and mine,” for all the private benefit and personal gratification that brings, is another question that continues to have relevance in our time. I think the best answer to that depends on where one begins. If a person is privileged/affluent/educated/safe/well-connected and chooses to focus all his energies on his “own people,” one might call that quite selfish and not very pro-social, really. On the other hand, if a person is marginalized and hardly making ends meet and lives precariously in a community of similarly endangered people, and that person focuses all he is and has on seeing to needs of his own and his endangered tribe, no one should rightly fault him for that singular focus.

  • Amor Fati

    I don’t think one has to choose between giving aid locally and giving internationally. I divvy up money set aside for charitable giving by allocating some to local food banks and local non profits and some to victims of war, victims of climate change, etc. Many of these people suffer because of the actions of affluent societies and governments. My undeserved “white privilege” obliges me to share with people who are struggling and disadvantaged. There are so many wonderful humanitarian agencies doing wonderful work–Doctors Without Borders, for example–where small contributions by many can make a profound difference.
    We all can work towards alleviating suffering wherever it occurs by sharing what we have. Some can give more, some less. It makes no difference. It all adds up. We are all brothers and sisters in this world, all members of humanity. It is our responsibility to help where we can. Just my opinion.