The Danger of Distance

We live in a world that is both bigger and smaller than previous generations. Technology and the internet have brought the far away close to us. It is not unusual for people to regularly interact with people on the other side of the world for business or common interests. This has fundamentally changed the way people think about distance. Some have called this the “flattening” of the world. This is meant to convey that the distance from one point on the globe to another is no longer defined in the same way. People in one part of the world are often heavily involved in decisions that impact another part of the world. People provide services from one country to another and whole countries’ economies are built based on the idea that they will serve the needs of people they will never meet in person.

This is an amazing reality to live in and it does have its advantages. We have access to a global economy and a connection to people, places and things that our ancestors would have never dreamed of. Want to learn a foreign language? You don’t need to depend on what is offered at your local school or university, you can actually have personal classes from a native speaker without leaving your home. Need a very obscure or rare part for your car or computer? You can probably have it shipped to your house within a few days. Need to know how to do something or fix something? A video or step by step instructions are a quick search away. People today and the generation being raised today believe in access. Information and gratification are available to all and most of it without delay. Everything is instant, but that doesn’t always make it true and even access to truth in some form doesn’t provide the wisdom needed to properly apply the information gained. There is a problem with distance in a giant world that has become as small as the neighborhood you grew up in. There is a real danger in the environment that creates.

What is the danger? Let’s call it the complexity of humanity. Every one of us has lived through this, whether you would identify it as such or not. This situation occurs whenever someone makes any decision that impacts you that has little to do with the specifics of your situation. Whenever a general rule or a general assumption is applied the amount of distance between the rule and the situation has a dramatic impact on validity. If we were to make a “general rule” about this issue of distance in human complexity, we might say that, generally, the closer to the problem, the more helpful the solution. It might be helpful to look at a few situations to explain this better.

  • This could be called “there is an exception for every rule“. Growing up, most likely the adults in your life gave you rules. You had rules for your household, rules for your school and maybe rules for other groups you were a part of. We have all lived under some kind of structure like this. Usually, the person putting these rules in place is doing what they think is best for the group over which they have responsibility over. The rule may make sense, generally, and it is possible that it is indeed a good basic rule, but the larger the group (the more individual humans) you are applying the rule to, the more likely that general rule is not a good and fair rule in every circumstance. The amount of “distance” between those who established the rules and those governed by the rules and those living by the rules increases the complexity of creating good and fair rules or laws. Not only does it impact it on this level, but it has an extreme impact on the adjudication of those laws. The rule keepers gradually lose the capability of fair judgement the less they actually know the people whom they are holding accountable. Instead of dealing with them as people, whose circumstances may require allowances for the specific situation, they are just another number, who is forced to comply by the letter of the law.
  • Another situation might be called the “grass roots example”. You have probably seen a situation where a problem, challenge or tragedy has impacted the community and that specific community has risen up to deal with the problem in a unique way. This change happens for 2 main reasons. First, those who are most impacted by the problem are highly engaged and committed to finding a solution. They have lived out the situation and know firsthand the impact it had on their lives and the lives of family, friends and neighbors. Because of this, they have a strong internal commitment to persevering through difficulties in order to see the problem solved. Secondly, their firsthand knowledge of the situation allows them to understand it at a level that isn’t possible for an outsider. That doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from outside information or advice, but ultimately, they have information that may not be apparent to even the most well educated outsider. The combination of these 2 factors give a movement good potential for enacting tangible change which improves the situation. By contrast, when you introduce distance into the equation, it is easy to see that the further away from the problem you get, the less helpful discussion and potential solutions can become. Distance also impacts the commitment to work towards a solution. Someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game is more likely to bail before the work is done or to not being committed to doing their part of the work.
  • Related to this, might be called the “national conversation” problem. The information age has left most of us with just enough information about many things to be dangerous. Especially with social media, it is easy to see how a groundswell of this type of distance emotion can spread, even if it is based on almost no true knowledge and understanding of the specifics. We rely on others to relay a soundbite/bullet point synopsis of whatever is going on in our country and the world and then before you know it, we are making memes, forwarding posts and even getting in arguments with people about something that it might not even be possible for us to have a truly informed opinion about. The cost of admission to enter this national conversation may seem free, but it is possible it costs us our integrity. The more distance between us and the situation on the ground, the more careful we should be about jumping into this conversation with our opinion. Neighborhoods and cities have been changed by the force of will of groups who have never lived in those places and whose passing interest will move on much more quickly than the collateral damage left behind can be repaired.
  • One more example might be called “posturing for effect“. In 2021, as is common in most years, nations from around the world met on Earth Day to talk about improving the environment. The environment is one of those big issues that governments especially like to weigh in on. The White House made a commitment to “reduce US emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030; commitment is symbolic but nonbinding”. This was pulled from a first summary paragraph in a major news publication. That last phrase perfectly summarizes this problem: “symbolic, but nonbinding“. This is how you get environmental leaders flying around the world in private jets and taking limousines to environmental meetings. The distance between the life they live and the problem they are addressing is extreme. When you have decision makers and leaders who are put in charge of things, but who are making a decision that will not impact them personally or their own personal behavior, you get bad decisions and hypocrisy. Being good stewards of the environment is something we should all take seriously, but the problem is best addressed by looking at what is in front of us and working to make that better. If we are not addressing the problem that is right in front of us, it is difficult to make sound decisions for others in encouraging or requiring them to address the problems in front of them. The more distance between the problem and the person trying to solve it, the less sound the decision. Public figures who are elite and/or wealthy of all types are often guilty of this posturing.

If you are still with me, you may be wondering, what is the main point or why are you talking about these things on a blog about Seeing God? The point is this, there are many movements in this world that are pushing towards taking problems and putting the solutions in the hands of people who have nothing to do with the problem. Humans, as I said earlier, are complex and the further away you get from the individuals the more it is impossible to deal with this complexity. When you have one leader who is trying to make decisions about what is best for millions, the only way to deal with that complexity is to ignore many of the people or simplify their needs and desires down to vague representations of their reality. We are not only complex, but we are human. We desire community. We need to be known by others. We don’t want to just be a number in a spreadsheet, but a real person, with a real story behind our life. A story that matters to us and which we hope matters to other people.

God has designed us this way. Jesus was God made flesh among us (John 1:14), so that He who is God would not just be a sovereign God in Heaven above, but a real, living savior, who closed every bit of distance between God and man and became the perfect mediator for us (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus was the perfect embodiment of firsthand human experience. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15. God solved our greatest problem by sending His son to live this sinless life on the earth and to reconcile us to God through His sacrificial death. Because of this, we are no longer distant from God, but we have had all that separates us from Him removed. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” James 4:8

By the same principle, we don’t solve the problems in our community by expending all of our thoughts and energy focused on someone else’s community. We have limited capability to have an impact on a problem we read about or watch a video about on the internet, but the impact we have on our own community is limited only by our willingness to get off our computer and go out into that community. Whether it is through individual love and care, volunteering, banding together with others to work towards reasonable solutions or even by spending time in prayer, we can change our communities. Our hearts and our first actions for overcoming the problems of our world must start with the people we are surrounded by. Wherever you live, your community needs Jesus and they need those who love and follow Jesus to be His hands and feet to them.

Finally, I hope you will realize the true danger in putting the solutions to your problems in the hands of those who are the most distant from you and your community. When we turn to people like this to solve our problems, we should realize we have no right to complain about the sub-par results we will get. It is the nature of the situation. The closer to the problem, the more helpful the solution. The farther away from the problem, ignorance, lack of commitment and engagement and misinformation make any helpful solution unlikely.

When it comes to your community, close the distance. When it comes to telling other people how to solve the problems in their communities, keep your distance!

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