I know that we are not out of the woods yet. But today, I find myself thinking about Christmas. Specifically, I am wondering how we will look back on the first few months of 2020 when Christmas rolls around. What will our lives today look like when we see them in the rearview mirror?
Did I use my days well, despite the challenges?
Did I try something new, read something new, or learn something new?
Did I seize the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend, or meet the folks that have been living next to me for the last three years?
Did I build something, repair something or improve something?
Did I enjoy a walk at sunset or play in the sprinklers?
Will I put toilet paper in my kids’ stockings this Christmas?
When I look in my life’s rearview mirror this December, will I like the images that I am leaving today?
The images we see in the mirror of our history often look very different than when we first created them. History and experience have a way of reshaping the memories of our past. Have you ever rewatched a movie that you have seen a thousand times, and because of a new experience in your life, you suddenly see something in the film that you missed? Perhaps you are now really connecting with some part of that movie that you previously overlooked, because at the time it was merely in the background of your personal experience.
Several years ago, I visited the Sisters of Charity Mission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In addition to the orphanage, there was a large compound that served the dying. Within these walls, people of all ages, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, had arrived because their days were coming to an end and they had nowhere else to go.
On the day we visited, there were over 600 people living in the compound, which was served by six nuns. Six. Every day, these six heroic nuns awakened to the same cries and the same work. Every day, their hands changed sheets soiled by dysentery. Every day, their ears heard the stories of crime and hunger, their eyes witnessed the misery of leprosy and their arms compassionately cradled the dying. Every day… without end. This was the first, overwhelming impression I had of this place; the faithfulness of six nuns who cared for so many.
The second image that captured me was watching the dying serving the dying. Since the work was more than these six nuns could possibly handle, those who were able cared for those who were closer to the end of life’s journey. This image was not as dark as you might expect. Instead of an image consumed with death, I saw a community that was at peace, and even joyful.
Our tour of the facilities was led by Sister Benedicta. I remember watching her move from room to room, sharing the stories of the people we met. She did not just serve them, she knew them. Even though her relationship with each of them was temporary, limited by death itself, she knew them and their stories. With a silent smile she peacefully touched the hand of a frail man as we passed. It was obvious that he knew that she cared about him. His story and his life mattered to her, and he saw it in her smile.
Passing through another doorway and into the central courtyard, we saw a small boy rocking back and forth in the corner, tightly curled into a ball to shut out a world flooded by cruelty and pain. As she knelt to caress his back, the Sister told us his story of the streets and the brutality of the bandits who took not only his parents, but also his eyesight. The sound of her voice and the warmth of her hand on his back brought light to a world of darkness. His rocking slowed and his tense muscles began to relax.
As we walked, Sister Benedicta did not need to tell us why she, or the other five nuns, chose to spend their days here. It was obvious. They demonstrated it; no one lives here or leaves here alone. Mother Teresa, founder of the Sisters of Charity once said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” The sisters of Addis Ababa dedicated the wealth of their lives to end the poverty of loneliness where they could. I have continued to carry these images with me.
The experiences of the last few months have caused some new images to appear in the rearview mirror of my visit with Sister Benedicta. There was an image of a way of life that seemed so normal back then that it had faded into the background of the obvious.
She touched them…
Everyone we passed or spoke with was greeted by Sister Benedicta with a visible smile and a light touch. I don’t know what disease or aliment brought them to her that day, but I don’t think it mattered. They mattered to her. Ending the poverty of loneliness mattered to her.
These images from so many years ago have reminded me how deeply seeing a smile matters. Or how a meaningful pat on the back or shaking a friend’s hand can fight the dreaded poverty of loneliness.
Today, the little things that used to exist in the background are more valuable than ever. A comforting touch on someone’s shoulder, an encouraging word, or an engaging smile is priceless in a world impoverished by loneliness. I had heard that Mother Teresa always taught that the small things in life are what really matter. With each day, I am beginning to more clearly understand the wisdom of her actions.