The Trouble With “The” (A No Easy Answers Post)

No Easy AnswersThe timing seemed a little ironic.

An old post, called “Words Matter: A Disability Primer,” was in the process of sending my blog views through the roof, and where was I? I was sitting in a ballroom listening to a priest share a piece of advice he was given when beginning a challenging urban assignment:

“Lose the word ‘the.’”

Not the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill. Because that terminology is a label that builds walls. Just as calling someone a “Downs kid” reduces them to their disability, referring to the homeless or the mentally ill reduces people to whatever struggle they face. It makes them “Those People,” which is to say, “Not Like Me.”

I am 100% guilty of this.

It’s easier to deal with the things that make us uncomfortable when we can compartmentalize them. We can all sympathize with Those People as long as They are kept at a distance. As long as all it requires is to feel sympathy and maybe toss some money at the problem.

Except there’s this inconvenient, deeply convicting truth I once heard, and which has stuck with me ever since: The Homeless are not a problem to be solved, but people to be loved. You can substitute any number of other troublesome issues and the same is true.

Love is not practiced at a distance.

Love is practiced person to person, eyes meeting eyes and hands meeting hands. Which adds additional inconvenient truths, because when you get to know someone it’s a whole lot harder to pass judgment on them.

The next morning, as I ran by the river beside the hotel, I passed at least three people who had clearly slept under viaducts. It was hard for me not to examine my own conscience.

Because this call to love is a nightmare for an introvert. It’s hard enough for me to walk into a gathering of church musicians, people who have similar training and interests and passions, and get to know people. To try to bridge the chasm between me and people whose life experiences and choices and circumstances have landed them in a place so far removed from mine? I can only say again: nightmare.

Now, here’s my problem. There are good things in the world, and the fact that suffering exists elsewhere does not render those good things bad. They’re still good.

But we live lives so insulated from the suffering, we don’t even recognize our own sense of entitlement anymore. I’m dancing at Jazzercise to music performed by people who have millions of dollars to throw at nothing, and I count myself more righteous because I don’t throw money at nothing. Except, well, Jazzercise.

I mean, think about the way we live. We have so much wealth that we hold eating contests where a person wins by consuming ten thousand calories’ worth of hot dogs in ten minutes. Five days’ worth of calories. For a Westerner. For someone in the developing world? Maybe a week and a half’s worth of food. In ten minutes.

The candy store sells fudge only by the slice, a slice so big that six of us could eat from it twice. The portion sizes at restaurants everywhere are so big that Christian and I can split one between us and count it as more than a full meal.

And because we consider this “normal,” we have to pay even more money to go to exercise classes and tuck our tummies and buy weight loss supplements.

And upon this sort of attitude does our entire economy hinge.

I can’t escape the conclusion that we’re all, collectively—even the most aware and convicted among us—completely, sinfully clueless. The “consumer culture” that Pope Francis took to task in Laudato Si is something that every one of us participates in. And those of us who profess to be Christians should be really uncomfortable with that.

I don’t know where to draw the line between a healthy enjoyment of the goodness of modern life—$100 hotel robes, king-sized beds, Wii and weekend getaways—and sinful cluelessness.

But maybe that’s all right. We, the comfortable, need to be afflicted sometimes, because we need to be shaken awake every so often and realize there’s a bigger world out there and we have a responsibility to it. Even if there aren’t any clear cut solutions.