Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lenten Voices: Empathy

by Ellen Hill

Every night the media brings more grim stories of houses foreclosed and families made homeless. It seems the businesses thriving in these times are auctioneers who place the houses back on the market and the people who empty them. Many families hope against hope that they will somehow be saved. Until at the last minute they are forced to leave with only a bag or two of belongings. The belongings, furniture, clothes, pictures are all discarded. Nothing is saved, resold or given to someone who could use it.

Entire lives are placed in a dumpster. From kitchen to back yard, from clothes to toys, everything is turned into trash. One cleaner said its the family pictures and the toys that are the most disturbing. The family shelters are overwhelmed as are the food banks. It is the lucky family that can find a shelter that will keep the family together

I grew up in family where you put back the things you couldn't afford. My father turned a budget into a math problem and even made it fun. We had a certain amount to spend and a list of groceries to buy. My father taught us how to find a ripe tomato, how to thump a watermelon and to buy in season. He taught us to love food and respect the money we had by living within our means. We were never embarrassed at the register because we had already done the math. If the math was wrong something went back. It was as simple as that. We were in control of our lives and we had still the ability to share with others. If you asked me to define my childhood, I would say ideal. Two loving parents who had dreams for their children but supplied the skills to function in the world. Sometimes people refer to children as free spirits. Children are taught kindness, social skills, and conversely, all the negatives. Hopefully, when we send them out into the world they will not define that world only in terms of their own needs.

My mother always said, "There but for the grace of God go I ." She lived it. A simple idea that everyone needs help at difficult times and difficult times come to everyone. Everyone is hurt or can be. Grace and kindness, it seems so simple, so straightforward. The ability to have empathy and pass it on in a meaningful way.

My mother never gave a beggar a dollar without asking what exactly was he going to do with it. If the answer involved alcohol then she would buy him a meal and sit with him to be sure he ate it. My teenage self varied between wanting the earth to swallow me up or pretending not to know her. Her compassion made me intensely uncomfortable. It took me years to realize that she too was outside her comfort zone. My mother was an intensely private person who shared little with anyone outside her own family. She was a woman who moved slowly throughout her world. Yet I once watched her dive into a crowd to help a man having an epileptic seizure. Following the first aid directives of the time, she shoved her wallet into his mouth and held his hand until help came. With my mother it was never about religion, for hers was an unforgiving God, it was simply the inability to look away.

"Jesus answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Ellen Hill is a longtime member of St. Paul's.

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