I saw her on the street, waved and went over to say hello. Almost instantly, I regretted the decision. Cathy (not her real name) was having a bad day. She began ranting about the conspiracy of her ex-husband, his current wife and her doctors, all trying to make her look foolish in front of her daughter. She was convinced the dentist was lying to her, the social workers were lying to her, extended family were lying to her and all were trying to discredit her. Clearly, Cathy suffers from mental illness.
I stood in the frigid air for twenty minutes, woefully underdressed for the temperatures. I’d been running across the street, from one building to another without a coat, when I saw Cathy and spoke to her. I smiled and made comments such as, “That sounds really hard.” Internally, I was squirming, wishing I had some idea what to do. When the shivering became unbearable, I managed to politely extricate myself and head inside to warmth.
Cathy is one of the people who attends my cooking classes. I volunteer by teaching cooking at an apartment building that houses people who have come through homelessness, domestic violence or addictions. Many are bright and articulate, anticipating leaving this sheltered existence and re-entering mainstream society. Others, however, show the ravages of mental illness and the damage caused by years of drug or alcohol addiction.
It’s tempting to look at some of the people I work with and feel superior. The phrase, “They’ve made some poor choices,” spoken in soft, comforting tones is intended to imply a lack of judgement and compassion. I understand the phrase, having said it myself in the past. And of course, it’s absolutely true. Many of the people in that building have made some very, very poor choices.
What I’ve learned as I work with them, however, is that some of them just don’t have the resources to make good choices. I’ve come to realize that my safe, middle-class, educated upbringing gives me a huge advantage over some of my students; it has given me the ability to make a wise choice.
I have had the benefit of parents who loved each other and stayed married until my mother died. Neither of my parents had an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling. I came home every night to a warm, healthy meal. Our house was clean, the laundry was done, and when I was old enough I learned how to clean, do the dishes and wash my clothes. I hated those chores but realize now how much I learned by doing them.
My parents were careful with money yet generous, and from them I learned how to manage the little pay checks I earned working at a local senior’s home. I wasn’t beaten or sexually abused. I knew my extended family and felt loved by them. The value of education was driven home. My father stressed the value of honesty and responsibility, two virtues that have never steered me wrong. In short, my very human, yet very loving parents taught me how to live, and I took that upbringing for granted and looked down my nose at those without the same benefits. I felt finer than those who “made poor choices” without realizing they didn’t have the resources to make good ones.
I teach the residents like Cathy how to make simple, nutritious, tasty meals. We cook two main course dishes—enough for six or eight suppers. The residents take home everything they cook, and they are proud of their efforts. After cooking, we sit down together and eat a meal I’ve prepared. I always serve lots of fruit and vegetables because they’re healthy, but they’re also expensive. We eat a simple main course, and I give the residents the recipe, assuring them they could easily make it. The meal always ends with something sweet and the participants have learned to look forward to the treats, and enjoy how they’ve been “spoiled.”
It’s common for people to shed tears during our shared meals because the group, seated around a nicely set table, reminds them of Grandma’s at Christmas or the home they wish they had. I’m not a social worker or a psychologist, and the personal circumstances of my class are none of my business. I know only the stories they’ve chosen to share, and my role is to listen, encourage if I can, and be a friend. Sometimes, it feels like listening makes a difference, and some days, it feels hopelessly inadequate.
“Thank you for listening to me,” said Cathy, in one of her more lucid moments. “You don’t look down on me.” I smiled and told her that I’ve learned that we’re all the same. No matter who we are, all humans want to be known and to be loved for who they are. And all humans are worth knowing and worthy of love. She smiled a huge smile, showing off a mouthful of broken, discoloured teeth. I smiled back. “You’re an angel,” she whispered. I assured her I am not an angel, but that I care about her and hope to see her again soon.
I have seen Cathy again, many times. She attends my class often. Always, before class, I pray that Jesus will help me to see the participants with His eyes, to see their fine qualities and their sweet hearts. He is faithful. I love these people more than I ever thought I would, and I feel privileged to have a small part in their lives.
Sometimes Cathy has a good day and her true self shows through the illness. She’s lovable and kind. Often she’s cantankerous and obstreperous, and I pray for the wisdom to manage her moods wisely and appropriately. I know she will bend my ear with craziness every chance she gets, and every time I can, I stop and listen. She needs somebody to care about her more than she needs to learn how to cook, so even if I’m shivering, I try to be that somebody.
Karen Vine is a regular contributor to the Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Karen!
Image attribution: sezer66 / Thinkstock