Am I trying to help lift people to my level of thinking and being? Because I am wonderfully gracious with gifts to give? I have found that for me, the most potent way to quash the sense of superiority that separates the privileged “us” from “them” is to realize that, but for the grace of God, I would be them.
My family has made good choices; as a result partly of this, we have peace in our home and food in our fridge. I am well educated, involved in my church, and usually feel quite secure.
My dad’s side of the family is of Mennonite heritage. They came to Canada in the 1920s because things were not going well in Russia. My great-grandfather and his wife were “bitten with the emigration fever” and left for Canada a few weeks later. His father and siblings had asked him to stay in Russia and help bring in the harvest – one last harvest – and then they would all leave for Canada together. My great-grandfather declined to help in order to leave right away. He and his wife and kids made it to Canada; by the next year, the door to Canada from Russia had been closed. They never saw their parents or siblings again.
It was not until just a handful of years ago that a family reunion was able to reconnect our severed family: those in Canada and those finally arrived from Russia. I was not at that reunion, but my dad told me about it, with a rather dazed look in his eyes. He spoke of the vast differences between the two sides of the family and the stories they had been told by their long-lost cousins. They were still poor farmers, living difficult lives. My dad said they were uneducated and set in rigid, old fashioned ways. “If my grandparents hadn’t left when they did, had they waited just one more season, life would have been very different for us,” he said, shaking his head. “Their life could have been ours.”
We had nearly been them.
* * * * *
I made a friend in my late teens. We met at a Bible study and clicked pretty well the very first time we talked. She and I had the same interests and could talk deep into the night about literature, theology, stuff that mattered. We were the same age, we both had a younger sister and a younger brother. We were both homeschooled and Christian and had a lot of the same questions. We had good heads on our shoulders. I saw her as a kindred spirit, we were so similar.
One day we were talking about the pains of growing up. I related how I felt stunted in my growth because everything had always been handed to me. Everything was wonderful; the problem was I had no reason to mature.
She smiled politely. “Everything wasn’t handed to me,” she said. Her parents were divorced and her relationship with both of them was strained. They lived mostly on welfare and because her mother often wasn’t there, she had to be the one to make sure that details like groceries weren’t overlooked. “I had to work for what I got,” she said.
I shut my mouth and stopped complaining, embarrassed by my ability to make a crisis of a lack of crises, and surprised by what she had told me. We were so similar, the two of us. Why had she been required to face all that when I had not?
She could have been me.
* * * * *
For a couple years, I volunteered for a crisis phone line. We were trained to handle just about anything, from suicide to schizophrenia to sexual harassment. You deal it, we’ll take it. We got calls from all sorts – abused kids and lonely seniors, homeless women and successful businessmen. I found the strangest ones to talk to were the women about my own age. How had life gotten so complicated for them so quickly? We had all started off the same way – as little bawling babies. But my life was still happy and straightforward.
They must have done something wrong. They must have made a bad choice. A series of bad choices. I’d help them get their heads back on straight.
We got to learn a lot about the lives of our callers. They had personalities and talents. I spoke with an Olympic-level athlete and a fairly successful activist. I spoke to people with all sorts of skills and abilities. Some of them were much more capable than I was, in a lot of ways. They were braver. They were stronger. They were smarter.
Sure, they might have made mistakes, but haven't I also done so? Why was I still somehow in a position to help them?
Sometimes the program supervisor of the phone line would stop by the phone room. If the lines were slow, she’d try to get us to sing musicals. When we'd politely refused, she’d tell jokes and chat instead. “You know,” I said to her once, “We hear all about callers’ messed up lives, but sometimes they say something that reminds me that they’re a lot like us.”
“They’re just like us,” she replied.
It could have been me.
The desire to help make the world a better place and to help those less fortunate than ourselves is a beautiful thing and an important trait if we are to be a just and compassionate society. However, are we altruistic because it makes us feel kind and wise and generous?
Of the seven billion people on the planet, and earth's entire history, I'm the only one that turned out to be me. How did that happen? Understanding the history of how I got to where I am must be at least as important as knowing where I aim to go. I am where I am today largely because for some obscure reason, God let it happen it that way, yet I congratulate myself on earning my spot in the world. Hopefully the awareness of this arrogant tendency will serve to help rebuke it.
"We are always ready to make a saint or prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the mediaeval idea of a saint or prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated." G. K. Chesterton