If you see someone drowning in a river, what would you do?
Would you try to save the person by jumping in? Would you call 911? Many of us would be wiser to call 911 rather than jumping in ourselves. This could lead to forcing emergency personnel to cope with two struggling people. So we call 911. We also look for something that might serve as a lifeline.
But what happens if, while we are waiting and looking for improvised measures, we see another person struggling in the water… and then another. At first, we might look for more makeshift lifelines and life preservers. Then we look up. We see a bigger picture!
We see a gap in the bridge above. We immediately realize that they are falling in the river because there is a gap in the bridge. We now know that lifelines will not be not enough. Sure, we have to save the persons in the water. But now we must also tackle the root cause of why people are falling through the gap above.
How? We can warn people about the gap, put up signs etc. Maybe even threaten punishments. Then we realize that more than a warning sign is needed. Close the road? The more “radical” solution is to close the gap. A repair crew is needed to fix it. Who to call? Our frustration grows as we see more and more people falling into the gap.
In each instance, above we realize the response is more complicated than just pulling people out of the river.
Holes in our social attitude/structures
In the parable above we realize we need to do BOTH. Attend to immediate needs AND address root causes. We learn to look for the big picture. But the parable challenges us to broaden our horizons even further.
Today, often the gap/structure that needs changing isn’t a structure that is built of wood or steel. It is more likely a social structure and ingrained attitudes. In our short-sighted focus on this or that problem of people living in poverty, we don’t see the gaps in our social structures and caused by our social attitudes.
Often the biggest obstacle is that without realizing it, all of us, the comfortable AND the suffering, the privileged and the under-privileged, grow attached doing things the way “we” always did them. We become attached to social attitudes and their structural embodiment just as they are. As we grow accustomed to them, the less need we feel for personal change. It is the “other” who must change.
If I rail against welfare to poor people why am I not railing against welfare for corporations? If I am upset by the abuse of entitlement programs, do I recognize the subtle entitlements I benefit from by reason of my zip code or color?
Our defensiveness about the status quo of our own attitudes and the social institutions that embody them is entangled with our defensiveness about ourselves. We instinctively sense that if the institutions and practices need to change, we may well be forced to change with it. And, so often, the shortcomings we see in others are the mirror images of shortcomings in ourselves.
And it is hard for each of us to commit to the change of thinking Jesus calls metanoia.
The institutional shortcomings to which we are blind are often reflections of the same shortcomings in ourselves.
It is just the way things are.
Thankfully, St. Vincent looked at the bigger picture without losing sight of the details that cried out for immediate attention.
For Vincent, it was not an Either/Or but Both/And!
Looking at our ministry with the drowning people
- Is my approach to drowning people primarily jumping in and pulling people out?
- Do I focus on alerting people to the gaps but do nothing to close them?
- What can I or the ministry I work in do to address the gaping holes of our structures and attitudes?
- Suppose not enough people are able to see the bigger picture and address root causes. What then?