Mother Teresa, You And Me: Different Species?

When I met Mother Teresa I wept. I was with Catholic friends in 1988 in a small chapel in Washington D.C. She was tiny, calm, her face deeply seamed. Her bare feet were deformed, her hand bony and firm in mine. She seemed happy. Why my tears?

I was moved by her endless work to ease suffering. I saw Mother Teresa as a different species from myself. A superhuman, disguised in the humblest of small, bent bodies.

Later, after her death, I read in the newspaper that Mother Teresa had suffered from intense doubt and depression. She’d spent much of her life feeling separate and isolated from God, and struggled forward every day, regardless. Different from the cheerful superhuman she had appeared to be.

Fast forward to 2018. I learned that my friend Emily Lighthipe was going to donate a kidney to a woman, Liz Campbell, she’d read about in the community newspaper. Emily looked happy about this, unlike the typical person about to have their body cut into. She looked happy after the kidney transplant surgery, too, even though she’d struggled with pain. “Liz is doing great!” she told me.

“Emily the kidney donor is a different species from me,” I thought silently. “I really admire her, but . . . I’m not like her.”

Forward to February 4, 2019. I was sitting in prayer, trying as usual not to daydream instead. Emily and Liz had just celebrated their first Kidneyversary. Liz was thriving, in sharp contrast to before the transplant.

Emily crossed my mind, then stayed there. My physical health leapt out at me like an animal trying to tell me something. My respect for Emily took a more grounded shape.

“I could donate a kidney,” I thought, in a whisper.

Over the next month, I did research, and learned I meet the basic health qualifications. I met with Sherwin, another kidney donor, a joyful one, who has become a mentor. I think now that I can become a kidney donor, pulled along by the prospect of easing someone’s suffering and maybe saving their life. Though I’ll need a lot of support. Being cut into is not one of those childhood dreams like skydiving.

I no longer think that kidney donors and even people like Mother Teresa are a different species from me. They are vulnerable like me, and walk into giving, all the same. Seeing them as a different species had blocked me from moving towards a big give of my own. We all suffer from things like doubt, discouragement, relapses in our generosity, and feelings of anxiety. Those things aren’t allowed to imprison us.

Have you ever given in a big way? What helped you do it? What did you overcome?

12 thoughts on “Mother Teresa, You And Me: Different Species?”

  1. Wow that’s a huge decision! It’s difficult for me to imagine what that would be like. I’m interested in hearing more about how your decision is evolving.

    1. Hi Jesse! To be honest, my plan to donate a kidney, and to engage people by blogging about it, competes for my time and attention with my career and marriage. I hate that fact. I often feel torn and conflicted. I believe in the world of both/and (i.e., all these things can co-exist in my life). Yet in any given hour, day and week, I’ve got to choose a primary focus and let go of the other things to some degree — surrender to the either/or world. I need to make more peace with that fact! Thanks for your comment and your warm interest. You’re a great friend.

  2. I think the way you’re reaching beyond yourself through friend-/mentorship and prayer is important with a decision like this. It gives you a broader frame of reference so that your doubts and anxieties aren’t the only things you hear.

    1. John, thanks for affirming my habits of prayer and finding friends who are also mentors. You’re absolutely right that these help me see beyond myself and my own doubts and anxieties.

  3. Alison – I see one of the great values of this blog as being your ability to help us get past that impulse to see those who do things we don’t understand or feel called to do as being “other”. Genuine and honest communication helps us see our common humanity in spite of our differences. I’ve experienced that “othering” when I tell people I loved teaching middle school. I always appreciate when people give me a chance to share with them what I loved about it and what the challenges were rather than allowing the conversation to stop at “Wow! You must be a saint!” Nope, not a saint, just a flawed human being called to serve in what has never felt like an especially big or remarkable way. Thank you for sharing your journey and helping us to make sense of our differences while celebrating our commonalities.

    1. Barbara, I love your use of the term “othering”, i.e. we can do this distancing from each other in subtle, harmless-seeming ways, not just in the well-known, catastrophic ways (i.e., Hitler, genocide of Native Americans). And I too love the conversations that go beyond superficial compliments and admiration — “Wait a minute, let me tell you about the frigging challenges of this teaching gig!”. Grounded giving (like yours) is my goal.

  4. Thanks for the props Alison! I think most living kidney donors feel that donation for them doesn’t make them a hero or signify they are special. It’s a thing they do because they’re doing what needs to be done to help another human. Simple empathy with complex undertones.
    Mother Teresa lived humbly in this way despite the challenges she faced and I suspect one of the reasons she struggled with her mental health is because she was such a empathetic person. Empathy can be terribly burdensome and painful. Perhaps giving big is a way to cope?

    1. Emily, I do think empathy can be painful and that giving, big or otherwise, is a way to cope. That feels true. In a similar vein, one of the complex undertones for me around live kidney donation is that it’s a way to express myself, to live out my values visibly, to concretize them. Plus I want to inspire other people, similar to how you’ve inspired me. I am selfish here in that I am full of agenda. Sigh. So be it.

  5. Giving in a big way always, it seems to me, involves overcoming something within, usually an urge to just quit, to take failure as some sort of “sign” to find an easier path. When I look at others I admire (“big givers” all of them), I can’t say I can recall any of them having an easy path. They usually talk about failures along the way, and overcoming those failures. I find myself bolstered by that knowledge!

    1. Colleen, I too am bolstered when people (some “big givers”, some not so much) talk about their failures. Vulnerability in general makes me feel that people are being real, rather than managing their image. And my trust in them then grows.

  6. Great insight, Alison. I believe we are all capable of a big give. I would say that my kidney donation, though, has never felt like that, whereas other ‘gives’ in my life, which may seem small to others, have been more difficult–like, endlessly helping out my wife’s children financially, for instance. Your story about Mother Teresa resonated with me, in this way: her doubt about the existence of God, and how she persevered in spite of this, made her a more heroic person to me, whereas for others, it caused them to question her saintliness.

    1. Sherwin, it fascinates me that your kidney donation did not feel like a big thing to you. I can empathize that helping your wife’s children financially (I gather for a long period of time) DID stretch you. I recall you telling me in conversation that your kidney transplant surgery and recovery went really well (for some donors it is harder). I am learning, as you point out, that one person’s big give will differ sharply from another person’s big give. Thanks for your candor!

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