Enlarging our Radius of Concern




“Poor eyes limit your sight;
poor vision limits your deeds.”
Franklin Field


A person walks by a pond when a baby is drowning. The person recently purchased a $200 pair of shoes, however, and does not want them to be ruined by the water. The decision is draconian: “I will not save the baby.”

What do you think of this person?

Of course, this person is a monster. But consider this: Millions of children around the world have similarly dire circumstances. By giving up a dinner, you or I could provide essential food or medicine to a child whose life is at risk. Nathaniel Greene observes, “We don’t consider ourselves monsters for having this dinner rather than giving the money to Oxfam. Why is that?”

Greene, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton, calls this a moral paradox. He concludes we make decisions regarding right and wrong by our emotional responses as well as our reasoning. But with emotional effort, we can overcome out tendency to shut out the impact of disastrous circumstances on strangers. We can strive to see their struggles.

When I share this story with a friend, she recalls hearing that journalism students are taught there is a “radius of concern.” If a fire is two miles away, there is significant concern. As the fire becomes increasingly distant, our concern is diminished.

We may easily ignore the difficulty: If we routinely avert our eyes from suffering, we are culpable; yet simply by narrowing our vision, we believe we can escape blame.

This conventional thinking justifying self-induced blindness is misguided. We must expand our vision. Yes, our emotions tell us that ignoring a drowning baby is unconscionable, but the voice of reason also reminds us that the less visible babies who suffer from afar must also be the concerns of conscience.

Edwin Markham sees the problem from the perspective of the outcast. His poem, Outwitted, suggests another alternative to the judgment of the oppressor:

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Here too is paradox. It is indeed puzzling to consider that victory is accomplished, not by making the oppressor a “thing to flout,” but by encircling the enemy with one’s love. This is not the feeble and fragile love of romanticism, but the compassion of a person who demolishes discord with radical inclusiveness.

Markham encourages us to enlarge our radius of concern. His vision of the redeeming power of love is individual and personal. He sees the person who refuses to see him.

In the Gospels alone, the word “blind” occurs 46 times. After healing a blind man, Jesus uses the opportunity to address spiritual blindness. The accepted norm among Jesus’ religious colleagues is rest from labor is required on the Sabbath—including the labor of healing physical infirmities.

Imagine closing hospitals one day a week.

Jesus challenged the blindness of this law-and-order perspective. In Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase in “The Message,” Jesus says: “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind” (John 9:39).

In this profound paradox, the outcasts are invisible to those claiming they have the moral vision to lead: They fail to perceive that—by prioritizing rules above people—they are blindly perpetuating the oppression of the masses. They allow the baby to drown.

Perhaps as we apply emotional effort to expand our vision we will also be less inclined to purchase the $200 pair of shoes. The philosophy of loving things and using people is tempting. We overcome such temptations when we instead decide to use things and love people.

Many babies are drowning. How will you and I respond?

©2003 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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