By John W. Vander Velden
Growing up I thought I knew what the wide open country was. After all I am a country boy. The son of a farmer that chose for his life’s profession farming as well. I have always lived in the rural farm lands. Surrounded by fields with woods nearby to wander whenever I would want. Yes, my world was bound by property lines and pasture fences, but the space beyond was little different than the land I was free to tread. Though, growing up, I was not outdoorsy as my brothers, I valued the comfort of being surrounded by open spaces.
Perhaps that is why so many of my stories are set in rural areas. Because I not only know them best, but because I love them.
But it wasn’t until March of 1992 that I came to understand that the world I knew was not as broad as others. Jackie and I flew to Arizona. It was our first trip to the South West. It would not be our last. We left Phoenix in our rental car going north and a bit west on a two lane highway. Soon we had left what most would consider civilization behind. The road smooth and arrow straight across the desert of scrub brush and scattered bits of tall stiff grasses made up most of the vegetation that surrounded as we whizzed along toward mountains in the distance. The only mountains I had seen before were the Appalachians, those mostly tree covered masses of rock and soil of the eastern U.S.. I anticipated the chance to see the stony monstrosities of the Rockies.
The Arizona desert was an open world, but the extreme vastness did not register until after driving a road that led straight to the horizon for a full half hour, it yet stretched out as far as we could see. Yes, the mountains were closer.
They were not yet near.
It was at that moment I first understood just how vast many portions of our country was. I came to recognize that my own open areas were microscopic in comparison.
But now as I think about those vast lands of the Grand Canyon State and my inability to comprehend their volume, I realize there is a very different vastness as well. For just as it took a trip to Arizona to generate a beginning of an understanding of the unimaginable open spaces, it takes a similar state of mind to comprehend the vast differences between each of us. Yes, there is much that every human has in common, but in each person is blended a unique mixture of life experiences. Those experiences are shaped by personal history, by economic status, by family, by faith, by location, family culture, by thousands of different things tossed together in infinitely different ways.
Too easy for us to think we know everything about another person. Even spouses that have shared years together cannot know every hidden place within their beloved. And yet we look to the neighbor next door and complain to ourselves over one thing or another while never taking a moment to attempt to understand the people at our doorstep.
And if our neighbor from time to time ruffles our feathers, how can we begin to grasp the vast differences between ourselves and those in faraway lands. To make judgments, attach blame, to belittle, and whether we recognize it or not, place ourselves superior.
Just as it took a trip to the South West to teach me how small my own physical world was, I must take a trip, or attempt to in any case, within the mindset of my neighbor. If I am to understand the lost, the hurting, the hungry, the abused, the neglected, the disenfranchised, the abandoned, the wrongfully prejudged, and the others who suffer, I must make the effort to see through their eyes, feel with their fingertips, walk in their shoes.
To me those actions are signs of love and extensions of myself. I know I will never be able to bridge the vast differences, but with love…real love, I can begin to build the first portion of a bridge of understanding.
For GOD so loved the world…not just the dirt, rocks, trees and lakes, but the people that move about HIS creation. God loves you, me, and everyone.
I mean everyone!
It is our obligation to try and reach across the vastness that separates, to care, to attempt to understand, to judge less, to be more patient…in other words…to love.