In a culture which fosters individualism and materialism it becomes easy to ignore the pain, suffering, and misfortune of others. Most of us live blissfully unaware of the millions of desperate and lonely people living in poverty around us—people longing for love, purpose, and a better life. Most of us are almost entirely focused on our own needs and desires or constantly engulfed in some form of mind numbing entertainment. This egocentrism, whether mild or strong in its manifestation, is the natural outgrowth of the Western Culture in which we live. It’s important for us to recognize this because everything we think, everything we feel, and everything we do is in some small way influenced by our unconscious absorption of our culture. This is true for the faithful Christian, the ardent Atheist, and everyone in between.
While there is much about our heritage which is noble and beautiful, like any culture, ours is ultimately the product of sinful, self-loving, self-absorbed, fallen human beings and is therefore prone to developing dysfunctional modes of thought and behavior. It just so happens that in the West, this looks like materialism and stark individualism. Those of us who have grown up within the framework and influence of the West, no matter how sensitive to the plight of others we may be, are tainted by these negative and overarching forms of thought. Even the kindest, most well meaning, person will struggle to think outside of these cultural norms if he is not careful.
This is precisely the position I found myself in several years ago. I was a nice person: I treated most people with kindness, I often befriended social outcasts, and I cared (that is, I had an emotional response, something like intense empathy) for people who were in pain. I was also very religious: I went to church, I prayed, I read my Bible; I truly desired to have a relationship with God. Yet, in spite of all this, I ultimately lived (on a day to day basis) in my very own self-interested, self-absorbed, bubble. I would read passages in the Bible like James 1:27 which states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” and nod my head in hearty approval . . . but that’s as far as it would go. There were no works accompanying my faith. I didn’t actually visit or care for orphans or widows in their affliction, I just thought it was a cool idea; and I was not keeping myself unstained from the world. In fact, I was living very similar to the majority of people in my culture: self-obsessed and detached from reality.
I was completely wrapped up in my own little world—the Josh world—in which everything revolved around my goals, my desires, and my interests. Overall, I lived completely unconcerned about the suffering of thousands of impoverished and homeless people living all around me. I wasn’t totally unaware of their presence. I was not like Siddhartha, completely sheltered from the realities of pain and suffering in the world. It just wasn’t something I dwelt upon or did anything about. The weak and suffering in society remained in my peripheral vision—slightly out of focus. I never fixed my gaze upon them for any length of time. That is, until the night I met the old lady with the baby doll . . .
At that time in my life I played the guitar in a local band which frequently performed in clubs in downtown Dallas. Music was virtually all I thought about—much to the detriment of my marriage, my schooling, and my day job. I viewed my music as a positive force in the world—I took great pride in crafting thought provoking lyrics which might encourage people to think about God. In this sense, music was a ministry. In another, more real, sense music was and idol. It dominated every aspect of my life. This was the state I found myself in after playing in one downtown club on a Friday night.
It was late, we had just finished our set, and I was standing outside of the club enjoying the cool nighttime breeze. Suddenly I noticed something moving in my peripheral vision; someone was approaching me from out of the darkness of the ally which ran parallel to the club. I turned to fix my gaze on this unwelcomed visitor only to discover that she was already standing uncomfortably by my side.
I stood in silence starring at the unusual figure standing before me. She looked much older than she actually was—her skin wrinkled and worn from too much time in the sun. She was small, fragile, and extremely skinny; you could see her bones through her skin. Her clothing was tattered, grimy, and smelled of mildew. The most distressing thing about her, however, was not her appearance or her smell; it was the small Cabbage Patch doll she gripped tightly against her chest. There was something unsettling about seeing an adult in her condition clinging so tightly to a child’s toy. I will forever remember that image.
To my great shame, my first reaction was one of disgust. All I could think about was how uncomfortable and inconvenient her presence was. Before I could say a word, however, she started begging me for money, “just six dollars,” she said, “all I need is six dollars so I can stay at the mission.” As she begged, tears streamed down her weathered cheeks. Before I could reply she began telling me about her beautiful baby daughter—the love of her life. All the while she rocked back and forth, clutching the baby doll as If it were here only connection to reality. Her eyes sparkled as she recounted her most cherished memories of her sweet little darling girl.
By this point the disgust I had felt when she first approached me began to fade away. In spite of her startling appearance and quirky mannerisms, I began to feel something entirely different—compassion. As she continued speaking about her daugher, however, something began to trouble me. “Where was her daugher?” I asked myself, “Why was she holding a baby doll? Afraid of what the answer might me, I finally built up the courage to ask her. Her eyes glazed over and she starred off into the distance. “She died . . . she was burned in the fire.”
These words pierced my heart. It literally felt as if the entire world had come to an end. My soul sunk into despair and agony: “Oh God, how could you have let this happen?” I thought. With tears in my eyes I reached down and gave the empty shell of a woman who stood before me a huge hug. She began to cry harder as I embraced her. I held her hand, I prayed for her, I gave her the money she had requested, and she walked back into the darkness. My life was forever changed.
The world which lay on the peripheral was now the only thing I could see. When I closed my eyes I saw her face, her poor broken face, weeping over the loss of her child . . .