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Why We Need to have the Courage to Look our Neighbor in the Eye

September 19, 2019 4 min read

I was 14 years old when I first remember looking pain and injustice in the eye. I was staring into the face of a girl laying in a Romanian orphanage crib. She had a mop of curly brown hair on her head and tiny bones. Her deep brown eyes seemed vacant until she heard the voice of the one person who showed her love daily. A smile spread across her child-like face, and her eyes seemed to dance. She knew that voice. She knew that touch. 

This girl, the one who could fit in a crib meant for children, was 13 years old. 

I still remember hearing her age. The air left my lungs. My head spun. My eyes watered. My knees buckled. And I remember the way I couldn’t look her in the eye, because just a week earlier, I had been 13. When I’d first walked into the room, I thought I was so different from the little girl in the crib, but now I knew the truth.

We weren’t so different after all.

We were practically the same age. Our hair was the same color, and our eyes looked so very similar. We both burst with joy when we heard a voice we recognized, felt a touch we knew to be loving and kind. Both made in the image of our sweet Father, He called us Beloved. He knew our needs, and He cared so deeply for them.

In that moment, I had a choice: 

Stare at the wall behind the girl, fidget like the awkward teenager I was, and edge toward the door
or
I could look her in the eye. I could take her hands in my own, stroke her head, and wipe the hair from her face. I could honor her by engaging her, by seeing her. Simply put, I could love her by not looking away.

When I close my eyes today, I can still see this beautiful, 13-year-old girl laying in an isolated room in a Romanian orphanage. Her face is a little blurry—the cruel result of time gone by and new memories that demand space in my mind. But this experience and those emotions are still there, the lingering effects of an encounter with hard realities.

I never want to forget this experience, her face, her eyes. I never want to forget that my first reaction was to look away. And I never want to forget that realization—she and I were not as different as I thought. Because if I had more in common with this girl in a Romanian orphanage, I have to wonder how much I share with the person just down the road.

Confronting our Vulnerabilities

I believe this simple truth—that we have more in common with one another than we realize—is one of the reasons Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourself. It’s why He told us to create space for everyone around our tables and in our homes. Could it be this is why He said those fateful, beautiful, grace-dripping words, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”? 

Our world is full of hurting people, stories that rip our hearts apart. Humans are exceptionally good at marginalizing one another, separating ourselves from one another. It’s called pride and selfishness and a seemingly innate need to be more than we are. 

But, friend, if we look our neighbor in the eye, we just might see—like my little 13-year-old self saw—that we’re not all that different. 

We all lay awake some nights paralyzed by fears or worries or anxieties. 
We all have beautiful, complex hopes for the future. 
We all wish for love and joy and happiness for our families. 
We all have dysfunction and struggles and secrets. 

When we look into the face of someone who is hurting or marginalized or oppressed, we are confronted with vulnerability. We’re confronted with our own hurts and pain. We’re confronted with our privilege. And it’s deeply uncomfortable.

In that moment, we have a choice:

Look away or see the human staring back at us. 

Ushering in the Sacred

It’s true, we can’t fully engage with every single person or story or injustice in this world. The news is a seemingly never ending parade of the day’s latest challenges. But we do have the capacity and the calling to love our neighbors—to step into vulnerability, to embrace them in their vulnerable state, and be embraced in our own vulnerability. 

When we do that, I believe we usher a little bit of the sacred into our hurting and splintered world. We bring a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of the holy and extraordinary. It doesn’t require traveling to a third world country or donating your life’s savings. Sometimes it simply means talking to the cashier at the grocery store, delivering cookies to your next door neighbor, making conversation with the person who comes alone to church. More times than not, it means looking someone in the eye and listening to her story. Isn’t that what Jesus did over and over again? 

So, may we resist the temptation to look away. May we have the courage to look our neighbor in the eye, and may we bring a little more of the sacred into our ordinary. 

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