(Not all old sayings are created equal).
The truth is, when it comes to the people we treasure and those we are indifferent to, distance really does matter.
It’s natural and healthy to have an affinity for those who are close; our families, our neighbors, our nation, but that affinity also brings with it something extremely dangerous and insidious as a bi-product: a prejudice of proximity.
This prejudice can fool us into overvaluing what is near; into subconsciously believing that the lives of those around us, actually have more intrinsic worth than those who are far from us.
It can make us believe that the pain and the needs of those we know, should matter more than the pain and needs of those we don’t.
That’s why in America, we can feel so much urgency when we think about a child in our city starving, but relative indifference over one (or thousands) in the slums of Kenya.
It’s the reason a school shooting in our country grips our hearts deeply, while another thousands of miles away barely registers on our emotional radar.
It’s why the death of a few thousand people one September day on our own soil merits a national day of mourning, while the same number dying worldwide each day since due to starvation and disease, isn’t even a thought in our collective minds.
It’s why the plight of war-raged, poverty-stricken places we’ve never heard of half a world away, rarely make us even flinch as they fly across our timelines and TV screens every day long.
It’s a fairly common truth: The further away something is from us, the less we seem to care about it. It’s human nature, yes, but still a pretty lousy bit of it.
And this prejudice isn’t just about physical proximity either, but emotional proximity; about the closeness we feel toward those we determine are “our people”, based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or political affiliation or economic status or nationality or some other common thread that we choose.
This selective compassion shows up in the great disparity on the sides of so many issues we wrestle with.
In the stark racial lines over police treatment of people of color.
In the religiously polarized conversations about the rights of LGBT people.
In the fight for workplace equality for women.
In the debate over how our government allocates finances.
In the discussions about gun violence or poverty or domestic violence or disease.
Most of the time, we’ll fight most passionately for the things that hit close to home and for the people who live there. We’ll defend our tribe with everything we have, even if it means allowing the suffering of another.
Somewhat understandably (yet still sadly), the more people look like us or vote like us or worship like us, the more likely we are to take a hit for them and give a rip about them.
As much as I can help it, I don’t want proximity to prejudice me.
I want my heart oriented toward relieving need and pain regardless of where it’s happening. I want to be fully outraged at injustice wherever it raises its head. I want to defend the hurting and the marginalized and the damaged even if they seem nothing like me.
As a Christian, I believe my God demands it; that I love in a way that transcends borders and breaches barriers and spans divisions.
Humanity at its best does this. Religion too.
It pulls us beyond proximity and preference, compelling us to love the foreigner and the outcast; to serve and give and sacrifice for those who can give nothing in return beyond gratitude.
It enables us to see and deeply feel need beyond our own.
It allows us to find our victory in another’s liberation.
I think people of faith are most in the image of God when their hearts have the capacity to break for the whole world, not just their cozy little corner of it; when they can find complete affinity in simple humanity.
Does your compassion have a geographic limit?
Does your outrage at injustice come with caveats or qualifiers?
Where do you find your heart showing favoritism?
Where do you find commonality, enough to care?
How does distance determine the depth of your burden?
How does proximity prejudice you?