In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice . . .

. . . in practice, however, there is.

Things that should work, don’t.  Things that shouldn’t go wrong, do.  Other people act in ways that make absolutely no sense to us (though if we looked more closely at our own sin and saw it more clearly, their actions would make more sense to us, at any rate; but of course, we don’t want to).  The unlikely happens, spoiling our plans, and always (it seems) at the irredeemable moment.  The world outside our head proves to be a chaotic system filled with influences of which we know nothing, far more complex—and, consequently, far less tractable—than the world as we construct it inside our head.

This is one reason for the temptation Courtney Martin has dubbed “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems.”

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the “Global South.” . . .

It’s not malicious.  In many ways, it’s psychologically defensible; we don’t know what we don’t know.

As Martin notes, this temptation arises in part from the core theological conviction of the contemporary Western elite:  the belief that we create the meaning for our lives ourselves.  What the article doesn’t quite face, though it lurks throughout, is that this temptation also arises from Western laziness.  H. L. Mencken once observed that for every problem, there is an solution that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong; the problem with that is that we keep falling for those solutions because we badly want to believe in them.  We want to believe in the quick fix because, as one of my colleagues often says, we don’t want to live in the mess.

All of us are born solipsists.  It could scarcely be otherwise; the infant brain is not yet able to hold abstract ideas (the concept of object permanence takes a while to develop), and in our fallen world, the absolute self-centeredness of newborns is necessary for our survival.  Unfortunately, we never fully emerge from our solipsistic cocoon, and some of us never try very hard.  This leaves us with, among other things, the subconscious assumption that other people’s problems are less complicated than our own.  It’s understandable, since we see our problems from the inside and other people’s from the outside.  We only learn otherwise if and when we go deep enough in relationship with other people to see their problems from the inside.  That, however, is hard and risky business; it requires us to earn the wholehearted trust of another person, which means we have to be willing to trust them in return.  That makes life better, if we choose wisely, but it also makes it harder.  It means facing things about ourselves that we don’t want to face, and accepting responsibility for matters for which we do not wish to be responsible.

This gives us a powerful incentive to skip out on the problems in the people and communities right around us.  For some, simple avoidance is sufficient.  If you’re “young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning,” however, that’s not enough, because you can’t create meaning if you don’t do anything that matters.

Of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable. Of course you’d want to apply for prestigious fellowships that mark you as an ambitious altruist among your peers. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.

That being the case, of course there are plenty of people out there to profit off you, using you to raise money and feed their own sense of importance.

There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”

Martin paints a pretty grim picture of the damage this “reductive seduction” causes in America and around the world, and offers an alternative vision for improving the world with which I wholeheartedly agree.  There’s one sentence in the concluding paragraph, though, which I think is significantly underplayed:

Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people.

That’s not just something to do if you “go,” wherever that might be.  That is, actually, the first and fundamental requirement for helping anybody and doing any good in the world.  Listen hard enough, and listen not to respond but to understand.  Stay long enough to give others the opportunity to speak in their own rhythms, not driven by questions from an agenda but drawn by your consistent presence in the real circumstances of their lives.  (Probing questions have their place, but only after people have made their own commitment to speak.)  Don’t set out to fix people, set out to know them.  Don’t deal with people in theory, live with them in practice.  Only then will you truly be able to bless them.

Photo © 2009 by Wikimedia user Thyme28.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Posted in Church and ministry, Culture and society, Relationships.

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