How are we supposed to make a difference?
Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
There’s a great episode in the HBO comedy Entourage in which the star, Vincent Chase, is pressured by Matt Damon, LeBron James, and Bono to give a huge sum of money to the poor. Unfortunately for Vince, no matter how much he offers to give, it’s never enough to make his friends happy.
It’s difficult to come to grips with the enormous amount of poverty in our world. It’s also difficult to ever feel good about anything you do for the poor because there are so many worse off than any one of us.
And so we despair of ever being able to do enough.
No matter what we do, it never seems to make a big enough difference in solving the problem of global poverty. Two responses are common at this point: giving up or giving all.
In the first scenario, people become so inundated with world poverty that they lose their ability to care. This may be because they are spoiled brats, with little or no human compassion left in them whatsoever, or because they are simply too exhausted and worn out to continue caring any longer.
Despair has conquered them.
In the second group, people become so burdened with the condition of our world that they just give and give and give until they have nothing left. For some, this is the point at which they begin to feel solidarity with the Suffering Christ. For most, this is the point where they lose any semblance of joy—they begin to judge others who do less and they treat harshly the very people they’re trying to help when those people cannot help themselves.
We need a way to understand what we’re supposed to do about the crushing burden of world poverty that triggers neither our indifference nor our exhaustion.
Knowing that there are billions of poor people in the world, how do we know who to help and how? How do we know to what degree to help them so that we can experience the joy of helping others without being crushed by sheer weight of need we can’t do anything about?
Philosophers provide us a useful tool for this called moral proximity. It’s a term that refers to the people close to you, to whom you are obligated. On the most basic level, it means you’re supposed to help your family. On another level, it means you’re supposed to help a stranger who passes out in front of you on the sidewalk. In the first case, you are biologically close (proximity) to your family and as a family member it’s your duty (moral) to help them. In the second case, you’re physically close (proximity) to the stranger and it becomes your human and civic duty (moral) to help them.
These days, however, moral proximity feels a little more intimidating. Whether through the internet or CNN, it now seems like we’re emotionally and physically close to 2 billion strangers, all of whom are collapsing on the sidewalk in front of us. Our 17cents a day hardly seems to making a difference to either Sally Struthers or the children dying every 6 seconds in Africa. Our moral proximity is so overwhelming it feels impossible to make any difference at all.
At this point, I like to remind myself of the story about a boy on a beach. Faced with thousands of starfish left on the beach by the receding tide, the boy begins to pick them up one by one and toss them back into the ocean. A nearby gentleman sees the boy and asks what he hopes to accomplish, seeing as the boy has no real hope of saving them all. The boy hurls one more starfish back to the safety of the ocean, saying, “It made a difference to that one.”
It’s true that there are more needs than there are ways for each of us to help, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help one person at a time.
It’s also true that our moral proximity is such that we feel like we’re supposed to help everyone…but I think God would be happy to have us begin a little more locally.
Very simply, I think it’s our job to help those we know and those we’re physically near. If your friend needs help, help him— if that help is yard work, work with him; if that help is counsel, talk with him and listen; if that help is trouble, pray with him; if that help is financial, go with him to an advisor and help him weigh his options and, if you must give him money, never lend it to him. You’ll risk the potential weirdness of his inability to pay you back and his consequent shyness and slyness. Just give him the money and call it even.
If you see someone in real life, not on a screen, in need of assistance, then assist them: if they have a flat tire, then help them change it; if they’re hungry, then bring them a hot meal; if they’re lonely, then spare a few minutes and laugh with them.
By thinking about the very ordinary ways in which those we know and those we’re near most often need help, we disable the fear that we have nothing to offer a hurting world. Everyone can listen. Everyone can spare a few moments for another. Everyone can do something for that one, and so we should.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com