We are all human; therefore, nothing human can be alien to us. –Maya Angelou
When I was seven, I saw a homeless man on a downtown Pittsburgh street corner holding a paper cup and asking for change. I was bewildered. I went to Sunday school every week and sat with my family every morning for daily devotions. Every Bible story seemed to make the same claim: God provides for all people, and we should trust him to care for us. I’d been taught that God wants us to rely on His provision—but here was a man who had nothing. Resigned to pleading with strangers for help, he was wholly reliant on his (often stingy) community to meet his most basic needs. Even as a seven-year-old, I felt instinctually compassionate toward this man, envisioning myself in his shoes. And to this day, I haven’t forgotten him—not only because his desperation shocked me as child, but because of the countless people like him I’ve seen since.
While I can’t know the man’s background, I know that it is drastically different from my own. I’ve never truly worried about my next meal or the roof over my head. When I was young, I had the opportunity to receive an education with high earning potential. And I have a long list of family members and friends with the resources and willingness to provide help were I ever to need it.
When I’m honest about my possessions, resources and potential, I recognize that these are provisions outside of myself, independent of my own personal merit. I was born into privilege and comfort that I did not earn and do not deserve. The human experience is not equivalent to climbing a ladder or running a race: we all begin at different starting points, based on the family situations into which we are born. And we follow unequal paths, with different forces weighing us down or spurring us along as we build our lives. Even the formation of our most personal goals and dreams depend on the opportunities we’re afforded.
Our modern Western culture places high value on individuality. We are told from childhood that we can be anything we want to be if we work hard and apply ourselves. We’re taught that personal merit leads to success. We get what we deserve. Perhaps this is why we find it easy to pass by those in need on the street corners of our cities. Perhaps we’ve bought into the lie of personal merit: the lie that each of us possesses exactly what we deserve. This lie will quench the flame of compassion before it has the chance to grow.
Today, allow this lie to crumble. Be honest with yourself about the source of your possessions and your opportunities. Each of us is human and is subject to the same chaotic environment. Do not allow yourself to call another person’s experience “alien,” but instead fan the flame of compassion and call all individual experience “human.”
About the Author
Elizabeth Jeffries is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pittsburgh and writes nonfiction on a freelance basis. She and her husband, Mark, live in the City of Pittsburgh, and members of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in the South Side neighborhood. You can find her online at www.elizabethjeffrieswrites.com and on Twitter @EPJeff.