For anonymity’s sake, I will call her Laura – a face I will never forget and a story I will cherish for a lifetime. That is because within the scope of an hour-long culture-centered in-depth interview, I realized she – who couldn’t afford an apartment of her own and who wasn’t even sure where her next meal was going to come from – was nonetheless superior to me on so many different levels. She was wiser. Calmer. More patient. More level-headed. More grateful for whatever little she had. And her expressions of faith in God could well be turned into a motivational bestseller.
I am not being sarcastic or remotely facetious when I say this. Listening to Laura discuss her fight with hunger and food insecurity in Tippecanoe County, I realized here was a person who was not willing to accuse a single individual or social system for her fate despite being faced with the most inclement circumstances in life. Born in a socio-economically depressed family, and growing up with a grandmother who was deeply religious, she had been hardwired into accepting life without bitterness – no matter what she was faced with. At one point, I could not help but ask if she ever looked at a person better off than her and ask, “Why me? Why not she?” To that she said – in a rather matter-of-fact manner – that she had been told that to ask such a question is to question God – something she wouldn’t do.
“Of course, I have my bad days … but it could be worse,” she added. She said she wakes up every day with a feeling of gratitude because after all there are so many people who couldn’t make it to that day. And she did.
A big source of support in Laura’s life seemed to be her family – her mother, her aunt, and her sister who is married. It was heart-warming to hear how they inform each other about food pantries and food giveaways since many of them are food insecure. It seemed equally common that they would share food – one making the chicken, while the other fixed the potatoes. So – as Laura said – they were helping each other soldier on. But Laura seemed unwilling to be a burden on anyone in her family. They all had their own lives, their own places, their own battles to fight, she said. So she shuttles among their houses – sleeping a few nights here and a few nights there – while working at a fast food restaurant and saving to be able to afford an apartment of her own – someday.
It was heart-rending to listen to Laura talk about how she rations her food so that it lasts throughout the month. Often she saves half a free lunch at work so she can eat her dinner. Or, she works the entire shift without food, so she can take home her lunch and eat it as dinner.
As I listened spell-bound, I watched Laura speak without self-pity, without self-accusation, with complete acceptance of her follies, and with complete forgiveness of a society that blissfully passes her by.
I complimented her. I said, “You’re so level-headed.”
That’s the way she has always been, she said. “I always tell myself, at least you are alive.” These are lessons she said she learned from her devout grandparents. But I marveled at how much she was able to assimilate and turn into a living philosophy of her life.
We, who are privileged by our very birth into families where there are no shortage of educated people and wise words, how often do we care to live what we are taught by our elders? How often do we live Gandhi? Or the Bible? Or the Gita (the most sacred text in Hinduism)?
In India, I have often heard God being referred to as “deena-bandhu” or “a friend of the poor.” And all my life, I thought it was perhaps due to a parental pity that God feels for those who are less fortunate. But listening to Laura today told me that if God indeed is a companion of the poor, it is not because he pities them. It’s because those like Laura often bind him with unflinching love no matter what life does to them. Those, who never rail at him. Never question his grace. And most importantly, never ever doubt his wisdom – just like someone as “educated” as me would do at the drop of a hat.