The Three Feet Rule

Author and philosopher William James once said, “The deepest craving within any human being is the craving to be appreciated.” People ache to be seen, heard and acknowledged, James said. Persistent un-acknowledgement takes a toll on people’s lives, psyches, and even our bodies. James coined the phrase, “Cut dead but still alive.” It is a curious phrase. “Cut dead” is a 19th century idiom meaning “to be ignored deliberately or snubbed completely.” In 1896, James employed this phrase in the tenth chapter of his classic work, The Principles of Psychology, in which he argues that human beings are social creatures with an innate desire to be noticed favorably by others. Conversely, going unnoticed for a long period of time, or being “cut dead,” is tortuous. Listen to what William James says about the impact of being unnoticed for a long period of time: “No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all of the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were nonexistent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief.” (William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, pp. 292-293.)

I first heard the phrase, “cut dead but still alive,” in a presentation by Dr. Gregory Ellison, a professor at Candler School of Theology, in which he described the plight of young, African American men in our society. Ellison said that many people ignore the existence of young African American men. It’s as if we don’t even “see” a young black man for who he is, particularly if he is wearing a hoodie. Dr. Ellison was lamenting the fact that an entire category of people can go unnoticed by our society.

But being ignored and unacknowledged is not a plight that is limited to African American men. Dr. Ellison found this out one Friday night when he was lecturing at the University of Kansas. He was shocked to discover that the majority of people who came to his lecture on the topic “cut dead but still alive” were not African Americans but rather older white people who lived in a care facility near the UK campus. When he started his lecture about people being “ignored or unnoticed,” there was rapt attention in the auditorium. He was stunned. The older, white people were hanging on every word…because this was their experience too. In fact, they told Ellison that they feel ignored and unwanted by young people…even those in their own families! One woman said, “Once you get gray hair, people can’t distinguish between people who are 50…and 80!” These older white people experienced exactly what young African American men sometimes experience…they too, feel “cut dead… but still alive.”

In today’s passage in Luke 21, the poor widow who offered her coins at the Temple Treasury was ignored by everyone. People noticed the rich people putting their gifts into the treasury, but no one even noticed a poor widow who put in two small copper coins… except Jesus! This woman was “cut dead but still alive.” The good news of the gospel is that Jesus notices everyone… the poor, the rich, younger, older, people in different racial ethnic groups… all of us. And… Jesus takes us all seriously!

I have learned from my ministry with homeless people in New York City that the worst thing that anyone can ever experience is to be ignored. My homeless friends told me that when they are asking for money on the streets, most people ignore them. Hardly anyone makes eye contact or even acknowledges that they are alive. Almost every day of their lives, my homeless friends are “cut dead but still alive!”

[tweetable]At the end of his lecture, Dr. Ellison gave each of us a tape measure and a life changing assignment. He challenged us to begin a new habit of not only noticing, but acknowledging, every person within three feet of us every day. Think about it. When we stand in line at Starbucks, we are within three feet of the person who is next to us in line. We are within three feet of the waiter or waitress who takes our order at a restaurant. We are within three feet of those who ride with us on an elevator or who sit next to us at a concert or a movie.

Dr. Ellison asked us this provocative question, “What if we acknowledged that these people around us actually exist? What if we really ‘SAW’ them?” His question made me wonder…what if we smiled at someone, and said, “good morning,” on the elevator or, in the case of a homeless person asking for money, what if we simply looked them in the eye, smiled and said, “Sorry, I can’t help you today.” How would our lives be changed? Maybe, just as Jesus discovered the generosity of the widow… we might discover a truly wonderful person…by actually SEEING THEM!  

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