Gaps and distance. Two words with various meanings, but both can point to breaks, differences, and separation. A divide between places on a map, yes; but also the gulf we find between people.
It was the unfolding disaster we watched in horror last week that took my mind from the wide physical distances in Texas to the emotional and political distances that led to, and ultimately compounded, the state’s devastation.
Emotional and political gaps are easier to manage if we maintain a safe psychological and physical distance from those we dislike or who are in pain. Safe, I should say, for the one doing the distancing, but not for the individuals being left behind.
Several years ago I attended a Sunday service in London at St. Martin in the Fields. It was September, and the Vicar, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, had written a short meditation for the bulletin entitled From a Distance.
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” set during the Spanish Civil War, a republican guerilla spots a nationalist cavalryman from a distance and kills him. He raids the man’s purse, and inside finds a photograph of the soldier’s wife, intimate letters, and items of intense personal faith. Suddenly the cold act of war is revealed for what it was, and a feeling of revulsion creeps over the reader. This is no longer an ideological struggle; it is the ghastly abrupt shattering of a beautiful set of relationships and loves.
I’m writing this on 11 September: a momentous day. Rowan Williams described a suicide bomber as someone who can only see from a distance. All violence requires distance; it depends on not seeing, not hearing, not sensing certain things.
When we build emotional and psychological gaps between ourselves and others we make decisions that run the gamut from tone deaf and stupid (e.g., Cruz, Ted) to unspeakable tragedies such as September 11th that destroy the lives of our fellow travelers on earth. When we operate from an emotional distance, all those who don’t think like us are seen as fair game for everything from mockery to scorn. And when we turn over our brains and our principles to those in the media who are paid big money to divide us, their mockery and scorn becomes ours.
Sam Wells ended his meditation with thoughts on the life of his parish. He called it “life close up,” and in his religious worldview he suggests that keeping the needs of others close imitates the life of God, “close up and giving full attention to the world’s intimate detail.”
So much of the suffering we have seen in Texas is a result of political decisions to build a gap between those in power and those who do not share the same ideological beliefs and are perceived as outside the tribe. Those decisions don’t allow for a “life close up.” As Ryan Cooper wrote in The Week, the Republican party that has controlled all three branches of government in Texas for two decades is a reflection of the national party, one “in which catering to the welfare of one’s constituents, or indeed any kind of substantive political agenda, has been supplanted by propaganda, culture war grievance, and media theatrics.” Speaking specifically of Ted Cruz, he notes that leaving his freezing constituents to fend for themselves in Texas while he fled for the warmth of Cancun was emblematic of the party’s mode of governance. “Neither he nor anybody else in a leadership position in the party knows or cares about how to build a reliable power grid. They just want to get rich owning the libs.”
Thankfully, there are many fellow citizens and those in power — even from out-of-state and in the opposing political party — who turned toward each other with assistance and love as the state government turned away.
As one travels the Tube and other forms of transportation in the United Kingdom, “mind the gap” signs and announcements are everywhere. They serve as a reminder to be careful in crossing the space between the edge of the train and the platform. But they can also serve as a metaphorical reminder to carefully tend to the distances we find — and sometimes erect — between ourselves and others, working to keep them as small as possible. Working to maintain a human touch. Sam Wells, in closing his meditation, called on his community to:
“…renew our commitment in loving attention to details that matter. And so let us defy those who harden their hearts to bring about savage destruction through seeing merely from a distance.
Have a good week.
More to come…