There are 7.6 billion people on the planet. We share air, land, water, and space, both spiritual and social, with 7.6 billion other individuals. I cannot picture what that number looks like in any collection of things, even small units like stamps, M&Ms, or blades of grass. And yet, the world’s population is numerable. It grows and grows. And we remain one person in vast continuum of people. We are each one unit.
Human frailty is a tangible and demanding reality. I am one person with one set of memories and one name and a daily to-do list. My back hurts often when I am writing, so I have to lay on the floor for ten minutes until it stops spasming. I have to go to the grocery store to make sure I can feed myself. I have to sleep. I am responsible for keeping a cat alive. There are so many things – tasks – I have to do in a given day and within our 300-square foot apartment. In truth, however, these tasks are deep privileges, it takes me less effort than many to find and buy food, to drink water from our tap, to pay our bills to make sure our shelter is safe and temperature controlled. The mundane can feel like it gets in the way of bigger and more important work.
A friend recently said to me, “I feel so small and self-centered. Everything I worry about truly does not matter. There are people starving in Yemen and being turned away from borders for God’s sake!” Compassionate people I know are often concerned about two things. One, being too selfish for taking care of oneself. And two, being too small and powerless to make a difference in the world.
How do we make sense of our smallness in the face of a world that is too big and complicated for our full understanding, too full of pain? The violence of the world is arresting. If we want to help repair it, where should we begin? What should we do with our lives??
Lately, I have become increasingly angered by this world we find ourselves in, and I am less hopeful on a daily basis. I have had a perpetual are-you- effing- kidding-me orientation towards our political system and the possibility for the redemption of it: the persistence of racial injustice of many varieties, the blatant human rights violations, the dismantling of systems that protected the good (our land, our children, bodies and resources) or at least that aimed us toward the greater good.
This is a dark time in American history. It certainly prove to be a redemptive time in American history, but right now, there is so much noise and chaos, many of us struggle against hopelessness. Every morning there is another story about corruption or collusion, another story about senseless death, another story about refugees filled with hope, carrying their children who were turned away at a border.
I recently watched Ai Weiwei’s documentary about the refugee crisis, Human Flow. I cried from the first two minutes through the end of the film. Tears of profound anger at the inhumanity of our borders. Tears of compassion. Tears at witnessing the beauty stitched within profound injustice. While I have been following and involved in various ways with the refugee crisis for several years, but watching women, men, and children walking together, in the camps between train lines, hit my heart in more profoundly than ever before. Watching human beings, who had wrapped their children up in blankets, to leave their homes with no other option, so wearied and exhausted, approach a closed border patrolled by men with bullet proof vests and machine guns, wrapped in privilege…it knocked the breath out of me.
The contrast was striking and immediate, human and tragic, a clear divide. Humanity – in its fullest flush of hope and fear – and inhumanity – loaded guns prepared – separated by chicken wire. My heart breaks like this to some degree every morning. I say, look at all that is wrong with this world. I speak it out loud, waiting for some audible response. And yet, nothing. Just news stories. And collective grief. And back pain. All at once.
These days seem dark with a lot of depravity lurking beneath the surface (and above the surface, let’s be honest) of things. I look at all the terrible things that people in power can do, who are devoid of any semblance of integrity, so cavalierly to hurt so many people, to target the vulnerable, to embolden identities around bigotry. They are individuals who choose dishonesty and deceit over honesty and compassion, and I am angry about and frightened of it.
7.6 billion: that number is both a fact and so much more, so many lives that each within them contain love and confusion and leaps of faith. We are each one unit and yet so much more, whether you believe we have souls or not, whether you believe there is meaning behind a new life and the solar system.Whether or not stars and signs and the world’s population are theological problems for you, this world that we contend with every day is imbued with complexity and mystery.
I do not have an answer to the unanswerable, perpetually examined tension between the individual and the collective. I do not know how I, myself, should navigate my individual needs and my life’s purpose. While we read the news and we take in the breadth of world events, we take in the human frailty, fear, and hope that is stitched through everything. And we can allow the humanity of human beings to inform how we are in the world, what we choose to commit to, and what we choose to believe is true, which will inevitably inform our life decisions.
Whatever you choose to “do” with your life, if it is born of kindness to the best of your ability, it will be exactly what the world needs. The world needs more beauty and less violence, more honesty and compassion. There is plenty of room for many more diverse and beautiful things: grace made manifest.