Distance

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1226978224|%B %d

I’m beginning to understand the appeal of “distance,” I’m beginning to understand why tourist colonies so often stand a world apart from the place they inhabit.

Distance keeps us safe, keeps us sane, keeps us free. It saves us from uncomfortable and impossible obligations to the people we get to know in our journey. Distance insulates us from the people who are suffering from the same system that benefits us; distance keeps us from having to feel guilty for having, when there are so many who have not.

It would be easy to justify creating or maintaining this distance by accusing people we meet (and by extrapolation, Indians in general) of dishonesty, greed, or some other moral failing. And certainly, we have experienced our share of dishonesty. It often hides conveniently under the cloak of miscommunication and cultural differences, and we, being generally trusting people, are happy to keep it there. But we’ve been in many situations where we could sense that the true motivations of the other party were hidden, that all the information wasn’t on the table, that the people offering us advice, service, or friendship didn’t actually have our best interests at heart.

Still, it’s hard to deny the fundamental reality of the situation. We have plenty, and everyone we meet here has great need. This is not because of any special merit on our part, or any special deficit on their part. It is just the way things are. It is the frustrating arbitrary dole of reality. If I imagine our situations reversed, I can see how it might be tempting to do or say anything (particularly to rich people) to attack such gigantic problems.

But this is not our situation. We are the rich people in this context. How do we live with this? How can we spend so much money on ourselves while so many people have nothing? How do we know when to give, and how to give, and what to give?

I had chai with Amar and Deepak, a new shoeshineing boy in the neighborhood. Deepak’s mother is dying of cancer, and we have a reputation of charity on Paharganj.

For him, the situation is very simple. We have money, and he has a problem that needs money to be solved. For us, the situation is not nearly as simple. We have our own responsibilities, our own debts. Our money is just enough for us—not even enough, given our future plans and the way our culture operates. In our experience, giving money for one need only seems to earn us a glimpse of even bigger needs. And indeed, why should we give Deepak money for his mother’s bills, rather than some other worthy cause?

We could move to a one dollar a night dormitory and eat only rice and chappatis, and give all our bank balance away to the poor, and still have made no dent in the poverty on Main Bazaar. The rickshaw drivers would still rip us off, the touts would still lead us to the highest priced emporiums for their fifty cent commissions, and we would find ourselves sucked dry, fiscally and emotionally, within a matter of weeks.

Certainly, a rash of foolish giving is a call on some lives, at some times. It is something that Jesus asks of the rich young ruler. It is closely linked to the voluntary poverty embraced by the apostles and many of the saints. But this has more to do with healing our inward relationship with money than fixing the problems of poverty.

When it comes to money, as Christians, we must be like managers of a household whose contents are not ours. We are to be responsible caretakers to the best of our ability, until we have another direction from the Lord of the household. Occasionally, the Lord comes in and asks us to burn the house down, because we are spending too much time and energy keeping up with it.

Money is not the central force of human life, nor is it the central force of human relationships. The fact of the matter is we all are frail, mortal beings, utterly dependant on God. Wealth, with all the comforts and securities it can provide, can obscure this fact, but no one can change it. True human friendship grows out of our common condition, not out of what social exchanges we can provide one another. True friendship is a matter of shared tears, not shared dollars.

Indeed, relationships where the strong help the weak, or the rich help the poor can often hide our common humanity rather than reveal it. These exchanges further indebt the weaker party to the stronger; further shrink the poor man with humility, and inflate the rich man with pride.

This is part of the reason it was so unthinkably vital for God to come and live among us, to suffer and die as one of us. This is part of what he asked of us when he called us to follow after him.

So here we are, struggling to live and to love in the midst of this paradox. It is often difficult and awkward to be rich here, and it is tempting to retreat from that discomfort. But we won’t. And it is easy to throw money at problems in order to gain respect and praise. But we don’t have enough money to do that for very long. What we truly have to offer is ourselves, as much and as little as that is.

Deepak told us, “If you give me help, you are my god.” We told Deepak, “We do not have any more money to give, only our friendship.” And he went away sad, disappointed in a powerless god.

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