By Marianne Delorey (Photo Marianne Delorey, Photo submitted)
“If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just one.” Mother Teresa
This is the story of Benny. Benny is one of the many low income elders I have encountered in my travels. He is an immigrant and came to this country to work many years ago. He was illiterate and was only able to do menial work most of his life. Benny had significant troubles, some of which were his own creation. He loved playing the ponies and many months he did not have enough money left over for his rent. He always paid double the next month and would be back on the straight and narrow for a few months, but seemed to repeat this pattern two to three times a year.
On the months when he had no money, I don’t really know how he fed himself. I do know that he tried, when he had food, to feed anyone around him. Very often, that included me. At first, I tried politely refusing his offerings. I did not want to take food from someone who needed all the help he could get.
“Vegetarian,” I would explain to him.
“ Oh, Te hago arroz y habituelas.” “I will make you rice and beans.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t refuse forever. I ate my share of rice, beans, plantains, and other favorites many times when I worked with Benny. Not only did I get used to these oddly flavored foods, I grew to look forward to it. And something else happened. I started to realize that in providing food for me, Benny was giving back.
Benny did not have much, but he could cook and he could share a meal with me. This breaking of bread meant that he was part of a community. And I was, too.
When you work with the poor or the infirm, sometimes you have to hold yourself apart – we all want to identify and relate to our customers, but there is a healthy professional distance we have to keep for our own sanity. Too much empathy can really burn people out, but also internalizing other people’s struggles can weaken ourselves.
But Benny reminded me that we are not so different. In breaking bread with Benny, I learned that we both gave what we could to each other. Our gifts were different, but they were both valuable.
A friend of mine who is a stroke survivor recently noted, “I believe the most important lesson I’ve learned is that asking for help and accepting help is a ‘mitzvah’, a godly deed. Be proud to receive help when needed and know when to ask!” Accepting gifts may be hard, but doing so brings great joy to the giver, and so sometimes letting other people do for us is the greatest gift we can offer.
Perhaps it nudges our world forward a bit also when we accept help. I’ve always been amazed by the kindness and generosity of my son and I’ve told him how much I admire this. One time, he told me he wished he was average. Surprised, I asked why. He explained, “Because if I was average, then it means the whole world just got a lot nicer.”
Perhaps we need to accept help more often, not necessarily because we need it, but because it encourages more giving and therefore creates and reinforces community. Maybe, Mother Teresa is right. Maybe if we all just feed one person, the whole world is fed.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or [email protected] and www.colonyretirementhomes.com . For more articles visit www.communityadvocate.com.