I’ve always been a bit of a do-er. If I find an organization, a movement, a group of people doing something worthwhile where I think there’s a hole that can be filled, a task that needs done which I’d be good at doing, I’m usually inclined to do just that. If phone calls need to be made, if the floor needs swept, if doors need knocked on, if the organization itself needs a little organization, I’ll do it. I’ve done it. I enjoy filling a niche in that way.
If you’re familiar with the story of the sisters Martha and Mary, you know that when Jesus comes to their home to teach, Martha freaks out making preparations so everyone is comfortable and Mary sits and listens.
“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).”
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a Martha. On some level, I feel like cancer is pushing me towards being a Mary. There is something in the act of listening that can be mistaken for passivity or, to be more honest, there is something in the act of being still and quiet that in myself I mistake for passivity. Ultimately I fear that once passive, being active, being a do-er will be a part of myself that I’ve unlearned.
There was a video montage not long ago from the website of a major newspaper which featured snippets of young adults talking about their experience with cancer. The very first clip was of an Asian man who looked to be in his mid-twenties or so. He spoke earnestly and simply that he wondered what he could be if he didn’t have this disease. His face was pained and he looked stricken.
It was this simple idea which has haunted me since the very beginning of when I realized the full scope of what this diagnosis means. I’ll never be comfortable without health insurance. The things that give me pleasure also make me exhausted. I can’t volunteer for anything anymore because I barely have enough energy to both work and go to the doctor. How will this experience limit me? What could I be doing instead of laboring under the weight of my own health condition?
Every Sikh temple throughout the world has a Langar (Punjabi for “free kitchen”). This is not a soup kitchen. It’s not exclusively for the poor, nor exclusively for the Sikh community. Volunteering in the cooking, serving and cleaning process is a form of active spiritual practice for devotees, but the service they provide asks no religious affiliation of its recipients. Our guide’s chorus was, “Man, woman, color, caste, community,” meaning you will be fed here regardless of how you fit into any of those classifications. This spirit of inclusion and equality is reinforced by the kitchen’s adherence to vegetarianism, not because Sikhs are vegetarian, but because others who visit may be, and by serving no meat, they exclude nobody. The Langar receives funding from wealthier members of the community and through small donations at the temple. Every day they serve chapati and lentil dal, supplemented with vegetables when donations come in from local farmers.
This story at first made me feel warm and fuzzy, because I think it’s apparent that this, the practice of a langar, is a good thing. But then I began to think that I would like to do something similar to serve a community in this way, and my thoughts and unhappiness about where I am in my life just made me sad. It took me an hour or two to make the connection that I was placing value only on the preparers and providers of the meal, but not those who are partaking. Which, of course, denies the value in graciousness, in participation, in breaking bread with your neighbors.
So perhaps I will never really be a Mary, but this experience may allow me to find value in simply being alive enough to sit on my couch. To share a meal with my friends. To accept kindness and, if I must, become a more gracious individual.