This past week the physical world lost two amazing people in a tragic accident while raising money for charity. One of the two was a longtime friend of 13+ years and the other was a neighbor who lived within walking distance of my home.
Due to the nature of the accident (hit and killed by a fuel tanker during the fundraising campaign), their deaths were publicized in the traditional media and social media quite prolifically. The story ran on many local news channels between Atlanta and Savannah. This type of broadcasting of the sudden deaths jarred people from miles away to come forward and discuss their relationships with the deceased.
A similar discussion took place when two women in my community gathered a few items and a gift card for my neighbor’s grieving family, and asked me to go with them on the delivery. As we walked, we began to recount how many people knew the two victims. We began to piece together who knew whom, and how that relationship was connected to yet someone else we knew. As we walked and talked, another neighbor shuffled onto her porch in pajama pants and said her niece in New Orleans was good friends with the victim, as well. One of the women, exclaimed, “Wow! What a small world we live in, amazing.” Meaning, these two deaths had drawn out a community of people who before today had no idea of the intricate connections they had with others. The idiom usually implies that the world is not so big after all. Another person has been injected into our reality, making the world smaller than we imagined.
Scientifically, we understand the expanding universe, multiple galaxies, and vast dark matter (still unexplainable by most Astronomists). We know the world is big, however, when people enter our field the world seems to become smaller or closer to our existence. I believe that what we really mean is that uncommon encounters become small world encounters. We define bigger as further apart, further removed from one another. Consequently, when life thrusts us into view of another, we exclaim that the world is small because the other has become closer.
What if we define big as closeness, and small as further removed?
Here is the gray area of this cliche. I think the popular use of the idiom correctly describes how most of us live within individual cocoons, in our known worlds and we are jarred into awakening when a stranger becomes known and invades our small world, becoming closer to our habitats. Our illusionary worlds are small but reality is vast.
The psalmist declares,
“Lord how manifold are your works!” (104)
Manifold means how vast, how diverse, how assorted, how big; not how small are your works. In discovering the glorious assortment of the universe the psalmist becomes closer to the maker, and intimate enough to pen a song.
When we discover the divine which resides in us (if only a mustard seed existence) it is this awakening that broadens our worlds, allowing us to see the divine in the vastness of the universes.
Neither my friend nor my neighbor were particularly religious in a doctrinal way, but it was an intimacy with the internal divine that made their living intentionally broad. They intentionally reached into other worlds all the time through activism, music (which in and of itself is transcending) and refused to stay on their globes until a “small world encounter” occurred.
A good example is the cross-cultural music they participated in, and created and the ability to see civil rights as ultimately human rights. Bigger and closer. This is what led them to form a charity raising funds for quality wheelchairs.
They purposely made themselves available to many, to every soul whom they encountered because they understood the vastness of the universe and above all they understood how each of us, each living being is worthy of knowing deeply, and worthy of fighting for, and ultimately worthy of dying for. And this is what they did, indeed they died for the whole of the parts of community and life. This is why I was jolted by the cliche, “It’s a small world.” By the diversity of worlds, and the intertwining of the communities they made themselves servants to, I’m sure that they would agree, the world is not small, but huge and full of people and animals who matter. The stories are flowing from a manifold of communities and crossing racial, sexual, religious and international barriers.
Sociologist and pastoral care counselor Bonnie Miller-McLemore termed the phenomenon we were experiencing as the voices of the “living human web” being heard. The living human web represents a connectedness of all, including the voices of the marginalized, the disabled, the quiet, the political, the artists and the hurting, which shape and define us continuously. One of the neighbors I walked with to deliver the gift card, recalled a moment in her community service when she was weary and wanted to quit. She said that our former neighbor advised her to press on. She said,
“You can’t stop. This is not just about you, what you do will affect many people.”
The accident ripped us from stases and forced us to see the world as realistically as we can, as an expanse that encircles us. When one, or in this case two, are so violently taken out of the web, the whole thing sways to the pain, and we fumble for the dangling ends, struggling to repair the tear.
A Facebook friend wrote: “I know so many people who knew them.”
I replied: “Yes, their circle of community was wide and inclusive.”
Big, not small.
Their deaths have reminded me to think big, and remember that we all have our stories and they include chapters that intertwine more often than not.
I think my neighbor and my friend would say, “Draw your circle of community wide, be kind and think big.”