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The Scope of Distance
By Ruth LeFaive

Rain comes down again outside of my apartment window. With socks and fleece to fight the chill, I sip hot tea and skim the internet headlines: Bush Voices Concern on . . . Leading Shiite Party Selects . . . Supreme Court to Consider . . . 6.4 Magnitude Earthquake in Iran . . . Man Charged in . . . Wait. 6.4 earthquake in Iran. I wonder if Mary felt it. I get the globe from the top shelf. Oh, I see now. It's Iraq and Syria that together could almost fit comfortably inside of Texas, and Iran is on the other side. Relief. Mary in Syria, my new friend, is safe.

If you follow the AP headlines with a good internet connection, you can see the death toll rise minute by minute. 320 when I started writing this, up to 380 now. No matter how high the number gets, the fact remains that I do not know the names of anyone there. My chest does get that barely perceptible sensation that comes with sympathy, but that's hardly akin to knowing a person, and her name. Mary is safe. Thank God. I don't mean to sound heartless, but I think it's human nature to react this way.

I imagine the time even just 200 years ago, when the scope of what a human being had to cope with was restricted to their own personal life events -- or maybe the events of the people in their village. One could make it through an entire lifetime without ever being aware of an earthquake on a different continent or the murder three towns over. Not to mention genocides and plagues and factory fires. Compare that with what we hear today in just five minutes of CNN with its crawl and sub-crawl of facts coming at us. All we can do is cap off our emotions -- only let so much in. But it's different when you make a friend. When you know a person's name. Mary is safe. Thank God.

While the globe is here next to me, I put my right index finger on the border between Iraq and Syria. Then I put my left index finger on Southern California. At the same time, I put my nose on the North Pole and look down. I see my hands touching opposite sides of the world. Maybe this is the way God sees us; so big he can palm our whole planet like a playground dodge ball. Yet, I'm so very sure he's right outside my apartment window knowing precisely how many raindrops have landed in the abandoned houseplant on the ledge. Oh Creator. His views are Both-And. Plus, All of the Above. He knows all of our names. He knows what the stray cat next to the abandoned plant scavenged for breakfast, and how immensely hungry it felt before that meal. And he knows I'm going to stay in my pajamas, pour some more hot tea and sit down to write an e-mail to Mary. He knows this before I know it. And he knows I'll write something naively idealistic like this to her:

What if we all had friends across the world? What if every person in every country had an intimate connection with someone else on the other side of the globe? Wouldn't that change the face of foreign policy?

It's all fine to dream that way, but rather than belting out my favorite John Lennon song, why don't I ask myself some better questions? Such as, what if I learned the names of the people in the apartment next to me? Not only the ones who unknowingly provide this speedy wireless connection I'm so grateful for, but also the ones who play their music too loudly right up until 10 pm on Thursday nights. What if I didn't mind talking to Mike the Veteran outside of the Starbucks because I wasn't afraid he needs more than I can provide? What if I tried getting to know the woman in the laundry room even though her English isn't very good and my Spanish is even worse? What if I stopped imagining the answers to these questions and actually set out to act on them?

And if I don't give it a try, why not? Is it because the distance from my shoulder to the tip of my index finger to a spot on one side of the globe is as close as I want to get?

The death toll is up to 400 in Iran. It's still raining here. In under a minute I can tell you the number of inches of rain we've had this year. And in the same minute, I can tell you the name of the long-term dictator of Togo. Ask me any question . . . just as long as it's not about the people in my apartment building. I've got some work to do on that.


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