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Default Mode: Selfish

I told my husband the other day that I think we should have a child soon, if only so that we can not yell at them. We live in an apartment complex that is low-income and largely populated by single-parent families. Every time I walk outside our building, I walk past at least one mother, smoking a cigarette and/or talking into a cell phone, and yelling at her child.

This bothers me for several reasons. The first one, obviously, is that I don’t think anyone should shout at their children. Since I don’t have kids, I can’t really judge the motives of the parent. But I have worked with low-income kids both from American and African backgrounds, and usually when they are “acting up” it is for attention of some kind. And sometimes the best way to get attention from a stressed-out parent is by being naughty. After all, anger is a form of attention, and for a child this can be better than nothing at all.

The second reason my reaction bothers me is that it shows me where my heart is. As I work and live and interact with people who are living on the edge of poverty and hopelessness, I find myself categorizing the ways I am different from them. It does make me feel better, but only for a little bit. The truth of it is this—I wish the gaps between me and some of the people I live with were quite a bit wider.

This selfish wish reminded me a commencement address given by one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, that focused on living a thoughtful life, one full of compassion and a commitment to not only thinking about ourselves. Although he did not identify as a Christian, he gave some profound thoughts on what the real trials of the adult life are: boredom, routine and petty frustration, to name a few. For Wallace, the only Truth with a capital T was the idea that we have the ability to choose how we think and see the world and ultimately what we worship. Our natural default setting is to see everything in relation to ourselves, to worship our own little lives and intellects and problems at the expense of everyone else.

For Wallace, worshipping  a higher power, be it Jesus or Buddha or the Four Noble Truths, makes sense because it helps us see the world from a perspective outside of our own selfish desires. It helps us see the woman who is screaming at her child in a different light, helps us see the various situations and experiences that might have caused this moment, and helps us understand that the world is really not all about our own momentary pleasure. It helps us survive in a society where people are more likely to worship money and power and fame than God, where our default settings fit nicely into the patterns of consumption and control, where the very banality of everyday existence can grow into a self-centered worldview of evil proportions.

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Wallace saw the pitfalls of the constant struggle to try and constantly change the way we view the world. Only three years after he gave the aforementioned commencement address, he killed himself after a long battle with depression. He wasn’t able to reconcile what he knew to be right with how he knew himself to be. He knew all too well how powerful the “default setting” towards self-centeredness was, and how destructive it could be. As sad as Wallace’s death was, it continues to point me to why I believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here was a man who came and saw the world through truly different eyes—who was able to talk and laugh and eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor and the downtrodden, the mean and the crass. Here was a man who God incarnate, who came in order to redeem and reconcile everyone, regardless of their temperament or situation. He came in order that our default settings might be overthrown.

This is a crucial point in the conversation about poverty. For those of us who do not live in or experience poverty the way the Majority World does, we must assess the ways we interact and judge the poor. For me, they are my neighbors, and I can choose the way I view and interact with them. I can choose to see them as people, just like myself, who are tired by the crowded, frustrating, soul-crushing aspects of daily living in America. But more than that, I can view them as equal recipients of a much greater grace—the ability to see our lives through the work of Jesus Christ, which speaks to the value of every person. I just hope I can learn this lesson by the time I have my own kids.

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