As a psychology major I recall reading a research study that determined people think about themselves and their own life 97% of the time. Given the exponential “Duh!” factor, it had to be a government funded grant.

Assuming these numbers are accurate the upside, if you’re an extremely paranoid person, is that people only have 3% of their time to plot against you. I mentioned this to an actuary friend of mine and he said, “Well, if the U.S. population is 300 million, it still means that 9 million people could be out to get you.” That’s statistical comfort at its best.

If we think about the people in our lives as a series of concentric circles then the red circle bullseye is the 97%. It’s the “I, Me, & Mine” circle. If we’re really generous we could include our immediate family in there with us.

The next circle out is our close friends. These are the people we do life with. The ones we share our ups and downs, go on vacations with and watch each other’s dogs when we’re out of town. These are the friends who love us no matter what, the ones we know will be there in good times and bad.

The next circle out are our acquaintances. We see them during the course of our work and routine. The Schwann’s man who knocks on our door to make sure we have enough blackberry ice cream. The mechanic who keeps our Chevy running smooth. Our co-workers. The lady behind the counter at the Post Office who knows us well enough to ask about our kids.

What about the outer circle? These are the “close by, far away” people. We see them. We don’t know them. Nameless to us yet with names like us. They have families and are living life the way we’re living ours. The grocery store clerk who says, “Press “Yes” and then enter your pin number, please.” The driver of the blue pick-up who gets to the stoplight the same time we do every morning on our way to work. The old man who walks his Scottish Terrier past our house every evening at dusk. The teenagers in the low-rider hot rod with a trunk full of audio speakers that rattle our roof as they drive by at 11 PM. Moms pushing strollers through the mall on a Saturday morning. The young couple in the next booth over at Chili’s drinking iced tea and eating steak fajitas.

These are the “close by, far away” people. We see them. We don’t know them.

It’s a given we don’t have the time or emotional energy to know everyone we come in contact with. But I wonder if we could do a better job of focusing on that 3% we have to think about others? How much encouragement could we pass on in stand alone moments with the “close by, far away” people in our lives?

The first time I really started thinking about my 3% was during my graduate school years at Phoenix Seminary. I purposely got my divinity degree to use it in the workplace. And when I began to focus on my 3%, God introduced me to lots of people. Every one of them, like you and I, have a story. Some are ordinary. Some are inspiring. Some are terrifying. All of them are real life.

“Mike” is new to the area. He’s a husband and dad to two small children. He likes it here but his wife is homesick for the town they left behind.  When you’re home with the kids all day in a brand new city it’s difficult to get out and make friends. He feels the pressure of making a living while trying to be a good husband that encourages his wife. They’re adjusting, but it’s not easy.

“Jim” doesn’t seem to fit the mold of a salesman. He’s too rough around the edges. When I ask about this he tells me he is a third generation Irish policeman. During 15 years on the force in a big city on the east coast he eventually went to work as an undercover officer. During an ambush he was shot 12 times. Eight bullets went into his Kevlar vest, another went through his arm, one grazed his shoulder, one shattered his knee and one .22 caliber bullet hit him in the mouth, lodging itself in the bone just below his nose, knocking out some of his teeth. He doesn’t know why it didn’t go all the way through his head. He retired on disability and now makes a living as a collections agent while his heart and his passion remain with the police work he can no longer physically perform.

“Mary” is nice enough but seems preoccupied most of the time. Polite, but distant. Each day at her work she appears to be carrying something much heavier than the clipboard she walks around with. When I inquire, she tells me that she’s in the middle of legal action against her ex-husband who is in jail for murdering their 10-month old daughter. Her reality is listening to attorneys tell her that he likely won’t get a life term because her daughter “wasn’t yet a productive member of society” and that her being beaten to death wasn’t “violent enough” to merit his being permanently incarcerated. Mary says she buried her baby the day before Easter but hasn’t had time to grieve yet because she can’t afford to be anything but strong for her 5-year old son, who was an eyewitness to his sister’s murder. “His nightmares are just now starting to go away. I only have so much money so I’m spending it on counseling for him. I’ll deal with me later.”

We have at least two things in common with “close by, far away” people. First, the God of the universe is our Creator. He made us all in His image and as such we are all priceless to Him. Second, we’re all grinding it out, trying to make it in this rough and tumble world. We don’t need to know their name to know that they could use some encouragement.

So next time you’re face to face with a “close by, far away” person, don’t wonder if they need a kind word. Assume it. Then offer it. Always with grace.

God understands our frame and He understands our 97% self-absorption. Yet if we’ll ask Him to help us focus our 3% on the “close by, far away” people in our day, He will use us to encourage others in the middle of their story.

And who knows? Maybe in the process begin a new chapter in our own.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

– Philippians 2:3-4

Todd A. Thompson – January 27, 2012

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