Do you know where you stand among the seven billion people who live on this planet?
It’s an interesting question, especially for us overfed Westerners. For me, it’s been a long, slow journey to understand that there actually are other people in the world.
It’s like this great old New Yorker cover, painted by Saul Steinberg.
To the average myopic New Yorker, the world beyond the Hudson River is a narrow stretch of corn belt followed by a shred of California, the Pacific, then far, far away … the rest of the world.
In the busy swirl of our lives, can we seriously take the time to wonder about, say, the million-plus migrants trying desperately to save their own lives? Or the hundreds of girls and women Boko Haram abducted who are being forced to become suicide bombers?
How about the homeless and destitute right here in our own home towns? Or the millions of young black men trapped in the school to prison pipeline? Can we really ‘get’ what they are going through?
Do we even really care?
Our crafty minds kick in: why should we care? That’s happening somewhere else, maybe a million miles away.
It’s really not our concern, we tell ourselves.
Truthfully, it’s not time or even distraction that’s the issue here. We remain myopic to the dilemmas of the rest of the world because in the Western world, we live in a highly privileged society. Our needs are met. We have abundant food, homes, water. We have shopping malls, air conditioning, fast food and catering apps. We have time to listen to the news, fret about politics or global warming, and attend protests.
Not surprisingly, millions of people would love to be in our shoes.
It is painful to acknowledge this, because to do so brings up stuff: a sense of privilege, and the shadowy feeling that it is not earned. Then there’s entitlement and guilt.
We’d have to acknowledge all the suffering in the world, which is vast.
And we are small.
How can we possibly hold all this pain? A feeling of complete and utter hopelessness washes over us when we consider it … So we pull out our phones to see who called, or texted, or emailed, or pinged us on social media. We consider a quick game of Words With Friends.
We avoid the singular awareness that we are part of a vast sea of humanity – one that shares common problems across the globe, as well as the local ones.
That awareness, once truly seized, invites a sense of responsibility. Once we are touched by truly understanding another person’s plight, our hearts open up. We can’t help it — it’s simply what we do.
Here’s what is truly interesting: it turns out we are all suffering.
That’s what being a human is really all about.
While we may not be suffering on the scale of a displaced migrant who’s lost everything and has been living in a refugee camp for the last year, we may be living in an empty marriage. Or our children won’t speak to us. Or we’re sick, or our parents are sick … or our …
You get the point.
Within that chrysalis of suffering, we are all being re-formed. Like precious metal we are being melted down, and so can once again live, free from our prior restraints. This is what suffering actually does for us.
For me, I emerged from my own period of huge loss with my senses on high alert. Now I’m still basically raw, even though it’s been more than five years since my daughter’s death. So … yeah. Now I do feel my place in the world, and all the responsibility that comes with it. I’m hoping I always will.
It’s like being an overly peeled onion. So I feel far, far more connected to the rest of my fellow denizens of this planet.
At the same time, I’m no longer caught in my own little survival scenario. The bottom already dropped out once, so now there’s room to stop, breathe and look around. This is the true privilege of crisis.
When you realize this, your own story becomes a bore. Meanwhile, the rest of the world matters far more than you could have expected. For me, I’ve become aware of something far bigger than just me — the fantastic web of humanity that surrounds us all.
It’s true. We are all connected: You, me and the guy who just gave us the finger on the highway. Likewise for our IRS auditor, our kid’s homeroom teacher, and an incarcerated person on the other side of the city you will probably never know.
They matter just like we matter. How do I know this?
Sometimes, just occasionally, I read the paper and I cry. That’s really all I have to go on.
Today, just for a moment, try to imagine that you are far more powerful than you realize. That your big, beating heart really can help save the world, in some small, considered way. And that you are intrinsically connected to every other person under the sun.
All you have to know is where you stand in this great cosmic web of life. It is, indeed, a place of power.
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