THE EASE WITH WHICH WE ACCEPT THE INJUSTICE OF EXTREME POVERTY INCREASES WITH DISTANCE.
When we see an accident happen and we think there might be someone hurt we are compelled to see if we can offer assistance. If we are out in public and someone collapses we rush to their side to do what we can. If we suddenly hear the screams of a nearby child every adult in the vicinity will come running to see what is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether they know the child or not, just the sound of a little boy or girl in pain forces other human beings to react without conscious thought. In all three of these examples lives could be at stake. In each case you could be the person that makes a difference in whether some one lives or dies. In each situation you would react immediately without hesitation – driven by human compassion for a complete stranger.
But if you take three similar life and death scenarios and add thousands of miles of distance between you and the event all sense of urgency is removed. All feelings of responsibility disappear. Any sense of compassion is dispersed. There seems to be no real connection to the suffering of others, even a small child, as long as there is enough distance between you and them so that you do not have to witness first hand their suffering. Even when the images of tragic events are televised and we watch in sadness as individuals lose their jobs, homes, families and even their lives we still do not react. We feel momentary regret for what the victims are going through, but then we change the channel and laugh at a sitcom rerun.
Why do we only feel the need to help when a life or death event happens right in front of our eyes? What is it about distance that allows us to hide from our obligation to take care of each other? Why do we feel like we can get away with doing nothing even though we know our inaction could have serious repercussions on the lives of innocent people? Why do we let strangers suffer and die in far away places without the slightest regret?…The answer lies in the fact that the person whose life is tragically coming to an end cannot actually see you turn away from them, and that allows you to do so. In other words, you do not have to face the consequences of your indifference. You do not have to have to witness their final breath. You do not have to face the loved ones they leave behind.
For most of us, extreme poverty happens on other continents, in far away lands with names that are sometimes difficult to pronounce. Many of us would be severely challenged to try to locate some of these countries on a map. This distance from our everyday lives makes their very existence seem surreal. We know they are out there somewhere, but we feel no connection to them. The thousands of miles between us symbolize all the other ways in which we feel separated from them. We do not share the same languages or customs. We have different political views and religious beliefs. Our cultures and societies seem to have little in common and we have trouble identifying with their constant struggle against poverty. We live on the same planet but in different worlds.
Distance provides the buffer that we use in order to hide from reality. We know that millions of innocent children die from hunger each year, but because we do not witness this atrocity we can pretend that it isn’t happening. However, ask yourself a couple of simple questions. Could you enjoy a nice meal at an expensive restaurant if a starving child sat across the table and silently watched you eat it? Could you devour your dessert and wash it down with enticing blends of coffee as the child gasped for breath? Could you pay the check with enough money to feed a meal to 200 starving children? Could you do all of this and not feel one bit of guilt?…Doubtful. For most of us, being in the presence of a child ravaged by hunger would be heartbreaking. We would be horrified by the physical and mental manifestations that take hold when a child is deprived of proper nutrition. And, hopefully, many of us would have the life changing realization that dying of hunger in this day and age is completely unnecessary.
Another sobering way to look at your responsibility to humanity is to consider how you would react if you had to personally dig the grave for a small child that you refused to help. If a five-year old boy died because he did not receive a vaccine that you could have paid for, with virtually no financial sacrifice on your part, it is not a stretch to think that since you refused to save his life that the least you could do is bury him. Of course you would have to face his grief stricken loved ones and witness their anguish over their dead child. You would have to cover his small body and lower him into the ground while his family cried out in hopelessness and rage. You would have to shovel dirt into his face and know that you could have saved this child’s life but you chose not to.
Most human decisions are based on emotion, as opposed to logic, and it is distance that drains the emotion out of the tragedy of extreme poverty. By not seeing the suffering up close we are insulated from the sights, sounds and smell of death. We are in a protective cocoon of our own making that lets us hide from the unpleasant realities that a billion human beings have to deal with every day of their lives. The distance in miles from the actual suffering gives us emotional distance from the horrors that we know are occurring. But we must accept the fact that no matter where we happen to live on this planet we are all part of the same humanity. We all want to live in peace and in good health. We all want to be respected as equals and to live with dignity. And we all love our children and feel the same intense pain when they are claimed by death.
Children die needlessly from so many different things in poverty that it is impossible to list them all here, but most of the causes can be divided into three basic groups; hunger, preventable diseases and treatable illnesses. These three killers can all be eradicated NOW if we will only make the effort. We can feed every person on earth. No one has to die from hunger. We can vaccinate every child on earth. No one has to die from a preventable disease. We can provide basic medical care for every human being on earth so that none have to die from treatable illnesses. These are all things we can do right now – not in the distant future. We don’t have to let the next generation fight this battle. We don’t have to wait on politicians or religious leaders to act. We don’t have to wait for organizations or corporations to lead. We don’t have to wait for an economic boom or for world peace. We can immediately begin to make the effort to bring the world together so that, no matter how far apart human beings may physically be, no one is left behind simply because they are out of sight.
WE CAN CLOSE THE DISTANCE BETWEEN THOSE WHO ENJOY LIVES OF PRIVILEGE AND THOSE WHO HAVE NOTHING.