Last year one of my professors confronted us with the question “Can you know the world and still love it?” Right off the bat I wanted to scream “Yes! Of course!”, my pride swelling at what I saw as a moment to take the high ground and make a case for being outward facing and engaging with the lost all around us. However, the sudden realization that I, at 23, had no idea what I was talking about forced me to hold my tongue. I can love the world because up to this point the world has treated me with kid gloves. The parts of it I have chosen to engage with, granted some were uglier than others, were all relatively benign when compared to the danger and strife we see broadcast from all over the world on the news everyday. None of this takes away from the value of those experiences. In fact, some of them were far more difficult than those many people I know have ever faced. In the grand scheme of things though, I have not really been challenged by the world, yet.
Engaging with the hardship around us is one of the greatest battles we fight today in an age of virtual reality and tele-communication. Why? It’s easy to give $50 in response to an email blast about human trafficking but it is a totally different experience to be one of the people counseling and assisting those individuals in person. I’m not advocating that everyone should sell all they own and become a missionary, nor am I trying to put anyone on a guilt trip about not doing enough. What I’m talking about is something that I struggle with, the desensitization towards suffering. I can give $50 to help that trafficking organization, but the emotional reality of what they are engaging never sways me. I know human trafficking, starvation, child marriage, and gender discrimination are all bad but I don’t feel that they are bad.
There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil; yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless-a miserable business (Ecclesiastes 4:8)
The author of Ecclesiastes gets at this thought as he struggles through living experientially. I can gain all the money in the world and then give it all away but what good is it if I am not changed? What good is it if that monetary investment is not partnered with the relational investment that leads to a soft heart, wisdom, and joy. I can have something to toil for, but if I don’t also have someone, then I will only ever be partly engaged. Relationships are the greater motivator for action. Ecclesiastes gets at this again, earlier this time, when it says:
I saw the tears of the oppressed and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors and they have no comforter.
And I declared that that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)
I feel the same emotion the author of Ecclesiastes must have felt writing that first line, that righteous anger fueled by the injustices dealt to those around him. But I also share his disillusionment with the battle against suffering. Sometimes I want to be in an ivory tower, away from it all, untouched and unspoiled, the only thing being asked of me, a $50 a month pledge so someone more courageous than I can fight the good fight. Luckily God didn’t take that route later when the sufferer was me and the courageous one was Jesus.
Where have I become desensitized to suffering? Where does it need to engage my person and my feelings, not just my mind?
Stanton Coman works in the not-for-profit space and is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program in McLean, VA.
Images:FreeImages.com/jello fishy, Tom Calendera