In day to day life, I experience what I call “extreme empathy,” meaning that at times I feel the pain of others very deeply—almost as if it’s my own. Because of this extreme empathy, often when I look at the world around me, I am overwhelmed by the pain and sorrow that is seemingly everywhere. I want to fix it all and feel completely insufficient to make even the slightest difference or improvement. The ironic reality is that if I allowed myself to stay in those moments of despair, I would neglect to do the very thing I long to do: seek justice.
Instead, I remember advice from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, and imagine a one-inch picture frame. This is actually advice Lamott gives to writers, encouraging them to imagine what they can see in a one-inch picture frame as a way to make the task of writing less daunting. In applying the same concept to justice, I hold up an imaginary one-inch frame; allowing the image that fits in that frame to be my starting point.
As I order my groceries, I hold up my frame and picture the people growing and harvesting my food. I try to seek justice with each food purchase, sometimes abstaining from certain foods I can’t purchase justly. Then when my groceries are delivered each week, I see through my picture frame the front-line worker coming out in rain, sleet, or snow to bring my food. I remember him and the image of God within him when I decide how much to tip.
Entering the overwhelming world of Facebook, with all its variety of opinions, I seek to find loving ways to advocate for and elevate voices often ignored. I carry my picture frame with me as I engage in the news, walk through my neighborhood, and go into work, looking for one-inch ways to seek justice.
This isn’t always easy. At the start of the pandemic I saw how people in prison were being ravaged by the coronavirus. I saw how little help they had and wanted to do something—anything that might make a difference. My husband called our local prison to try to see what we could do, but got nowhere. I felt deflated, once again met with the reality of how little I can do to help anyone, even in my immediate community.
But a few weeks later, in the midst of bedtime routines, my 7-year-old son asked if we could pray for people in prisons that they would be healthy and safe during the coronavirus since they can’t physically distance. And suddenly my one-inch picture frame came back into view, and with it the reality that it’s not always about grand gestures. Sometimes seeking justice is simply teaching my son to see the image of God in others.
Singer/songwriter Bono once said, “I’m a musician. I write songs. I just hope when the day is done I've been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” This speaks volumes to me about the call to seek justice. We must look at the world around us, explore the gifts, talents, and opportunities given to us, and determine how we can use our area of influence to tear just a little corner off of the darkness.
Sometimes the darkness feels so overwhelming and all-encompassing that I hardly notice the corner is gone, but this is faithful living: small, baby steps toward a more just world. Through this constant faithfulness eventually the small corner will become more of a chunk, and our world will, in small, simple ways, more perfectly reflect the beauty of our just, merciful, loving God.
Want to dig deeper? Check out the Faith Practices Project’s resources on justice and mercy at crcna.org/FaithPracticesProject.