Measuring Distance

Ruth Rosenbaum, TC PhD

We often think of distance as a spatial thing, that is, how far we have to go, how many miles we have to travel, how many hours it takes to "get" somewhere. For those of us whose work requires extensive travel, going away and coming back can create a sense of connection and a sense of disconnection. We leave home or workspace, enter a place, become connected to that place, and then leave it to return to the home or the workplace.

That is one type of distance, this spatial separation of time and location. Yet when we stop and think about distance, we realize that there are many other types of distance that affect how we live our lives, some good and some not so good. The distances of time, of memory, of experience, of lack of experience can also serve to separate. The distances of culture and/or language can create distance by the lack of ability to communicate, while the distance of memory, experience, or situation can lock us into seeing only from that viewpoint.

In addition, gender, race, ethnic background, or religion can create other distances. Age and experience can do the same. Disability and ability, visibility and invisibility can also lock us into a space which results in distance.

How do we measure those distances? Do we measure them in miles, in time spent? Do we measure these distances in time waiting, time enduring? Do we measure these distances in their pain and isolation, in the inability to touch and be touched, to hear and be heard?

Most of us know one or more of these distances because of what we have already experienced, or experience now.

So faced with distance, what do we do with it? What can we do with it? Essentially, there are two basic choices confronting us.

First, we can spend our time measuring all the distances and explain how they separate us…


We can decide to convert the distances we experience and live with into starting points for the journey of life.

The choice is a conscious decision, one we make -- if we decide to make it -- over and over again. Which we choose then affects much of what we are able to do in other aspects of our lives.

Several weeks ago, a colleague was describing a speech she had heard at the UN. A celebrity was describing her first experience in a village where children and adults were dealing with the effects of HIV/AIDS on their families and themselves. She talked of how she had been thinking before she went and then how she felt when she was there. She described her reaction in terms of the distance from her head to her heart and how it was the longest distance she had ever traveled.

Like the speaker, many of us have been in situations that are new and often difficult to see. We have listened to women and men, watched children, in situations that are heartbreaking. We too have traveled the distances to our hearts. We have seen. We have heard.

But although the distance to the heart can be a difficult one, the next distance that needs to be traveled is often a greater challenge…that is, the distance from our hearts back to our heads, and to our ability to think, to reason and to analyze.


The distance from our hearts to our heads can be one of the farthest we travel. It is a travel of action rather than reaction; it is a travel of choice. We choose not only to allow our hearts to be touched by the reality in which others live and in which we ourselves live. We also choose to make the return trip to our heads, and our ability to think, to analyze and to respond. Once we begin that kind of travel, there is (almost) no turning back.

We undertake this journey then because we have been willing to see and to hear…not only from the starting points of our own experience of distance but also from the starting points of others. We are able to do that because of our decision to not allow our own distances to separate us, to isolate us.

As we have discussed so many times, our responses will be on more than one level. We will act out of charity and work to meet immediate need. We will work to feed, to clothe, to find medicine, to provide school supplies…we will do so many works of charity.

As the journey continues from our hearts to our minds, we will join our voices to those of others advocating for change of policies, programs and practices to better meet the needs of others. The very work of advocacy keeps before our mind's eye the faces and lives of those on whose behalf we work, the people, the adults and the children, who got us started on the journeys from head to heart, from heart back to head. Advocacy reminds us of the power we have to bring about change.

While all this happens, there is a third form of the journey over distance - the work for systemic change. This is the hardest part of the travel over distance because it requires us to look at the root causes of the situations we are trying to change.

Systemic change requires that we engage in analysis of power, of voice, and invite those without power and voice to the table….as equals. Working for systemic change calls us to recognize that we are learners even as we are try to find answers.

It means we recognize that we are often part of the problem even as we are working to provide solutions. Systemic change is about remediation and correction of the systems that create the distances.

Yes, it can be overwhelming. That is why we must walk together in this going the distance, in acting with charity, in doing advocacy and in working for systemic change.

So how do we measure distance? We started with the distances of separation. We end with the distances we need to travel to bring about filled world. May we travel, in companionship, across those distances.