Photo by IndyDina
Yesterday, our church had a special mercy and justice service focusing on hunger and predatory lending in our community. It was very informational and interactive, so I was eager to hear what our middle school-aged kids thought about it all.
When I asked 13-year-old Q, she completely grasped the hunger issue. About one in four kids at her school qualifies for free lunches and is considered “food insecure,” and an average of 200 people come to our church each day to get a hot meal and a sack meal to go. Hunger is real, and involves real people in our community. She gets that.
The predatory lending issue, however, was more difficult for her to grasp—not on a conceptual level, but on a human level. With a 402 percent interest cap in the state of Illinois for these short-term, cash loans, the math is easy to demonstrate and staggering to imagine paying.
But what Q couldn’t imagine was a real person facing a situation that desperate—maybe being 50 dollars away from getting your heat turned off—with no where else to turn. Even though she was told (and believes) the problem is very real (apparently there are more payday loan shops in our community than fast food restaurants) it was too abstract for her to grasp with both her head and her heart.
Opening our lives and ears to real people who aren’t like us
As I tried to put a face on it for Q, I was struck (not for the first time) by how important real people and real stories are when it comes to cultivating real compassion and, ultimately, action and change.
But ignorance is bliss, right? Just look at the bliss of a 13-year-old who doesn’t get the desperation of living paycheck to paycheck. Well sure, it’s bliss if your definition of bliss is simplifying the world down to a viewpoint that only encompasses first world problems. And I’ll admit, that sort of tunnel vision is tempting. I was considering it on Veterans’ Day, as I struggled to know how to respond to complex global issues of war and unrest. When I’m not confronted by a story—a real face, a real family—it’s easier to avoid the issue all together.
But when we distance ourselves from issues we don’t understand, we not only live in a moment of denial, we create a potential snowball of denial. When I don’t understand something like military combat in a first-hand way, my tendency is to avoid it even more, because it’s foreign and I’m embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. The issue is compounded. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.
When I do go out on a limb and open the door to hearing the stories of people who actually live in the issue, it’s a vulnerable place to be. But it’s an incredibly important one. The variety of comments on my Veterans’ Day post enlightened and moved me. I’m not saying they changed the world, but they definitely broke the ice and moved me closer to a place of understanding.
It’s possible that my ignorance also hurt some feelings or caused some anger in the process, which is not at all what I intended. In the end, though, I think it’s worth the risk. When we open doors to stories and deeper compassion and understanding, there will always be the potential for hurt, but an even greater potential for something good.
Has a real encounter or story helped you better understand a real problem?