• The distance between us

    Posted by Marissa

    26 May, 2011

    Empathy is a really important attitude and characteristic to embrace, not only as a respectable world-citizen, but especially as a follower of Christ. You see, empathy is one learning to understand another's circumstances: background, upbringing, personality, joys, frustrations, persecution, and struggles. So how does one learn empathy? Well, it is said that to understand a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes...

    Ironically, many people facing a daily struggle to survive in poverty do not even have shoes. They are living on a meagre $2 a day or less which is hardly enough for food. But there are several ways to begin to feel empathy for their situation. You could go and live and work in a developing country, and the complexities of their circumstances may begin to unfold before you. You could read stories of people living in poverty from various organisations that have projects in developing countries. They are the stories that pull at your heartstrings and remind you that we're more fortunate than the vast majority of the world. You could also participate in advocacy and simulation experiences that allow you to become immersed in the realities of inequality and the continuous harsh struggle for justice in a broken world.

    Recently, I participated in the Live Below The Line campaign, an advocacy and fundraising activity that involved living on $2 a day for food for five days. In reality, the experience isn't a true reflection of the plight of the 1.4 billion people living below the poverty line around the world every single day. You see, although restricting myself to only consuming $2 a day was a bit of a challenge, all I really gave up was coffee and snacking (though these are two of my favourite things...). I still had the enormous privilege of having enough volume and quality of food to keep me going with my busy schedule. I still had the comfort and safety of a house with a warm bed, heating, showers and clean water. I still had my car, public transport, social services, work, church events for fellowship and all that jazz. My experience was a mere sprinkle of deprivation amidst waves of blessings, material wealth and advantageous circumstances. It would be almost impossible to replicate a simulated experience of poverty in Sydney in a way that would almost feel real... There is an unfathomable distance between me and extreme poverty...

    I was disgusted to find myself whinging about missing out on my three daily coffees for the week. I am very aware that those living on less than $2 a day do not have time, or even the strength and energy, to whinge when they are straining to collect water, scrounge for food, nurse their sick parents/children/siblings. I couldn't imagine having this level of daily pressure and moreover, I am not okay with the fact that millions do not have the choice.

    So I come back to empathy. It's what God requires of us, to "remember...those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." (Hebrews 13:3). I am urged to feel empathy for the 1.4billion individual people who live on a less-than-acceptable consumption level every day - they do not have the freedom, power or opportunity to reach beyond their binding circumstances. I have visited developing contexts before and one of the first responses I had was empathy; I had the opportunity to understand and feel the depth of the problem of poverty. Why is empathy so important? Well, as gender equality activist and writer, Gloria Steinem points out, "empathy is the most revolutionary emotion". When I know that 22,000 children die every day from preventable causes, empathy makes me feel uncomfortable and sick to the stomach - the way the families of those children would be feeling. It is appropriate that I should feel that way, and this feeling should move me to do something about it. Empathy shortens this distance between us and them: it changes hearts, attitudes, actions and ultimately changes lives for the better.
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    Marissa Flynn is the Micah Challenge Church Engagement Intern.