A funny thing happened when I moved to DC six years ago. I went from being surrounded by a laid-back crew of seminarians, pastors, poets, and radicals, to living in one of the most powerful, motivated, and highly-paid neighborhoods on earth.
It was a big shift in perspective. I had gotten used to living among simple people. Some of them had money and impressive jobs, but they weren’t the norm. I mostly compared myself to the people who were just getting by. And I was always aware of my friends who were struggling to survive. In the Mid-Western rust-belt economy, the Great Recession has been going on for decades.
When I moved to Capitol Hill, I was introduced to a whole new social landscape. These were focused, driven, specialized and highly-paid people. My neighbors came from around the world, seeking to work at the seat of US power. They served congressmen, lobbied for interest groups of all kinds, and led nonprofits stationed in Washington to advance a variety of social agendas. I had arrived in a land of formal attire, nannies, and dual-income power couples.
The air is different here in Washington; the longer I breathe it, the more it has affected me. Over the years, I’ve lost my frame of reference in the gentle culture of honest but economically struggling people. Another worldview has become the norm for me: one of worry, status-obsession, and lives that revolves around work.
These years in DC have helped me understand that my perceptions about life have little to do with what is actually happening, and everything to do with the comparisons I make with those around me.
Who am I comparing myself to? Is it the family to the west who work for a think tank and can afford a home on Capitol Hill? Is it the diplomats, politicians, and corporate leaders chauffeured from one climate controlled environment to another? Or will I look to the thousands of DC residents who are struggling to survive in the midst of rapid economic upheaval and injustice?
There’s another world that exists in my city, a thousand light years from the brunches and cocktail parties of the elites. It’s a world of rising rents, dwindling job opportunities, homelessness, and talented lives wasting away on public assistance. I experience an almost irresistible temptation to turn away from this alternate reality, the apartheid state hidden in plain sight.
Why? Why do I prefer to compare myself to the wealthy rather than consider myself in solidarity with the poor? How did I allow the 1% to become my norm?
This elite focus is especially mis-guided for someone who wants to follow Jesus. Christ’s entire ministry was about making himself the least, descending to the very bottom of the social pyramid in order to upend the whole oppressive structure once and for all. Through his liberating teaching and revolutionary sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquers the myth of the 1%. He calls us into a reality where those who have the least are our frame of reference.
Shifting the focus from the richest to the brokest isn’t just some pious exercise; it’s the surest way to experience joy and freedom. As long as I’m fixated on the wealth, fame, success, status, and power that others have, I trap myself in a race to acquire those same advantages. But when my frame of reference centers on those who have the least, I’m liberated into a life of thanksgiving and generosity. This is the opposite of the high-stress culture that is so prevalent here.
How about you? Who are you comparing yourself to? What kind of life do you want to be living? Do you want to spend your time climbing ever higher towards those who have more than you, or would you prefer to focus your attention on those who have been left out of the games of the 1%?