What You Don't Know

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Perhaps I had heard it before. If I had, I didn’t remember. I suppose there are things like that all throughout our lives that just aren’t timed right to have a significant enough impact to lodge in the long-term memory part of our brain.

It takes an association for that to happen. It has to really mean something to us in order for it to be considered of great enough importance for it to stick.

It was a few years ago. I was doing some marketing training and the guy giving us the training said: “People keep doing the wrong thing with the same results over and over for one reason. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

You don’t know what you don’t know. Like I said, I am sure I had heard it before, but suddenly it had become a profound statement. Not because of who said it or why he said it, but for very different reasons.

One thing about this mission we do, is that we are all in a state of constant learning that just goes on and on and on. Beyond the learning, and more importantly, is the deeper understanding that comes along with the learning. They are not the same thing you see. The learning is intake and comes rather quick and steady. The understanding is much deeper and is more associated with emotional intelligence. Not to discount the learning. It must occur first in order for the understanding to come.

Eighteen years ago, Orphan’s Lifeline was in its infancy. More of a dream than a reality. It was a mission on paper with very little funding and unwritten programs.

We had started in Russia, which as most of you know, was spurred because of connections made there by the group of founders in various ways. In a nutshell, the conditions of the orphanages there had pulled on all of our heart-strings and we knew that something must be done.

One common word I could use to describe an emotion that was felt each and every one of us who travelled there, would be “shock.” We had all lived under a propaganda-based infusion of knowledge that attempted to convince us that they were a modern superpower. The crumbling infrastructure and poverty we witnessed told a much different story. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Russia was in a very difficult time. It was still trying to adjust to no longer being the Soviet Union. The people were trying to adjust to the freedoms the new form of government gave them. The Ruble had collapsed and poverty was so rampant that many had begun to question if the new form of government and the freedom it gave was good at all. It was simply because it was all so new to everyone. You don’t know what you don’t know.

But the converse was also proven to be true when our newly appointed Russian Director, Dr. Eugene Bykov travelled to the United States for the first time. He was dumbfounded and awed by something as simple as Costco. He simply couldn’t believe that such a place existed. How could there be so much food in one building?! It seemed impossible! He had been told that such things were a lie. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The primary derivative of new discoveries is that it then gives you perspective. From that perspective comes the ability to value by comparison. When you compare what you knew to what you now know, you have new feelings about them both.

If I lived in a shack in a developing nation with nothing but a dirt floor, a wooden table and a bedroll, and it was all I ever knew, and the norm for my country, would I be poor? If each day I brought home just enough food for my family to eat and provided them with a basic education, would we be poor?  One could easily argue, no.

But if I took the same shack and the same standard of living and moved it all to Manhattan, what would happen?

I would look around at the massive homes filled with every amenity possible. I would see food and clothes of a quality and quantity I never knew existed. I would see cars that cost more than I would earn in my entire life. Now suddenly, in an instant, I would become poor simply because my newfound knowledge gave me the ability to value by comparison.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

The proof of that statement has come in many forms as our work expanded from Russia to many different countries and cultures. The statement applies to so many different facets, including the why as it applies to both those of us giving and those receiving.

From the early days in Russia to the expansion in other countries, a common question that we were asked by those we were helping is and was, “why do you want to help our children?” The question confused me at first. I wasn’t really sure how to answer because to me it was obvious. I was raised to “love thy neighbor.” I was given God’s Word and it told me that it was “pure religion.” I was born in a country and a culture where the norm was that empathy and compassion became action.

But it’s more than that. I was also born in a country where the vast majority of us have more than what we need. We have excess. And from that excess, we have the ability to give some of what we have to others. If you don’t have excess, you can’t give from what you don’t have in the first place. It took me time to understand that it wasn’t because they were selfish, it was because they had never witnessed or experienced a state of excess in which one can give out of that excess. If you’ve never been able to do it, you don’t understand the why.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

From all of this, the next phase of understanding in application, is the Managing of Expectations. For all of us involved in this mission, we must be careful to manage our expectations. We do that through putting it all together. We have to take what we now know, compare the values of x and y within their cultural and geographic environments, and manage our expectations for both sides. In other words, we have to be careful to not give too much and we have to be careful to give the right things.

That might sound strange, but the reality is that we cannot create an environment for the children in which they experience a life that is too many steps above what they could reasonably expect their lives to be as adults within their own communities. The shock and disappointment they would experience as young adults would be devastating. At the same time, we cannot leave them in the fragile state in which they exist or nothing will ever change.

That balance is critical and something we work very hard at. We want them to have the tools they need to change the things that cause there to be unloved and uncared for orphans in the first place. We want to break the cycle. So, we give them food and shelter. We give them an education and life-skills. We give them God’s Word and instruction. We give them love.

Our mission and task are not to give them the false belief that their culture and country will suddenly transform into Manhattan. It’s not realistic, and really, not what’s important.

If all they ever gain from what we do is far more basic, we have done our job. If they grow to adulthood knowing that they are loved by us and loved by God. If they grow up with an education and skills that allow them to bring home enough food to care for their family for three days instead of one. If they have adequate shelter and know how to raise their own children to love God and one another, we have done our job. If we teach them the steps to salvation, we have done our Job. If we lift them up just a little bit above that which causes them to suffer, and set the stage for gradual, generational improvement that is sustainable, we have done our job.

As we begin this new year, we are more thankful than ever for the wonderful partners we have in this mission. We are more thankful than ever for the opportunity to serve God through serving the precious and innocent little orphan children of this world. We are more thankful than ever for the opportunity to teach others about the plight of the orphans because they too deserve the opportunity to be a part of serving God and making our world a better place. They won’t have the opportunity if we don’t tell them…simply because, you don’t know what you don’t know…