Love and Mercy Beyond Comprehension
The origin of the Crossroads Event "Old Age as a Time of Grace?"
My motivation behind proposing a Crossroads event on caring for the elderly goes back to a series of questions that arose in my life several years ago. Since as far back as I can remember, I've had this gnawing anxiety about my worth as a person. I constantly felt the need to do and acquire “glamorous” things in order to feel like I have value. I would get jealous of people who looked and dressed better than me and who lived a more cool and lavish lifestyle. This anxiety became increasingly sharp around the time I finished college. I was confronted with my waning youth and the dawn of my adulthood.
To alleviate this anxiety, I fixated on making sure I had plans every weekend to go somewhere hip in the city in the hope that people would notice me. At a certain point I started feeling guilty for how vain my desires were and decided to tell a friend in CLU about it. She told me that the problem was not so much the sin of vanity or pride, but that I didn’t fully understand what was at the root of this desire for glamour. . . and ultimately the idea that if I somehow lived enough of a glamorous lifestyle, I would have worth as a person.I thought more deeply about what my friend said and then decided to live it as an open question. Why am I so attracted to this image in my head of a glamorous lifestyle? What gives my life worth? I started facing these questions as my grandparents were becoming increasingly sick. They needed me to spend more time taking care of them, and this competed directly with my aspirations of living it up on the weekends.
I remember one weekend I had to give up going to a birthday party so I could stay with them. While they were napping, I started reading the Pope’s latest Encyclical, Amoris Laetitia. In it, Francis challenges the postmodern "cult of youth and of the ephemeral.” He condemns the “throwaway culture” that discards the least productive and most vulnerable in our society, especially the poor, the unborn, and the elderly. He proposes that families pay close attention to the gifts and wisdom of their elderly family members and go out of their way to support them.
I was bothered as I read these words for several reasons. The Pope was proposing that human life has value not just when it’s “useful” or glamorous, but just because it exists. He was also proposing that the fulfillment of our time is not the ideal of efficiency, pleasure, or personal gain, but charity, the gift of self to the point of sacrifice. This flew in the face of the cult of youth and ephemeral pleasure that I had gotten trapped in. I decided to test out the Pope’s proposal through the time I was spending with my grandparents.
I soon started to discover that, although I often got impatient, being with them brought out a tenderness and gentleness in me that I didn’t know I was capable of. And while it indeed required a sacrifice, I slowly started to find myself more fulfilled by spending my time making a gift of myself than by “living it up.” On top of that, I was learning from my grandparents’ wisdom about my family roots, my culture, and life in general.
I coordinate my school’s community service program, and decided it would be
worthwhile to add more senior daycares to our program listing. I wanted more students to be able to interact with the elderly. I started searching on Google for centers in Newark, only to find out that many of them had negative reviews complaining of maltreatment and unprofessionalism.
Eventually I found one center that had very few reviews and a website that hadn’t been updated in quite some time. I took the risk of reaching out, hesitantly, to the owner. She responded enthusiastically, claiming that my email was an answered prayer. She had been looking for opportunities to have young people volunteer with the seniors.
I decided to visit the place before sending my students there, and found myself utterly amazed by what I saw. Thumbelina, the director, walks into the center and greets everyone with an overflowing gaze of joy--a direct expression of the center’s name, “Joy Cometh in the Morning." She approaches each of the seniors, even the grumpiest and most handicapped, as if they were a gift sent to her from above. I was most surprised by how she was seeing such beauty in people whom our society tends to write off as useless burdens.
Within my students’ first week working there, they had already absorbed Thumbelina’s joy. They were feeding the seniors, playing games with them, and listening to their stories with excitement and enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe these were the same students who initially complained about being assigned a “boring community service site with old people.”
Overwhelmed by the beauty of this place, I felt the need to share it with others. But where to even start? Joy Cometh in the Morning is a small senior day care on the outskirts of Newark run out of a Pentecostal church. How could I share the good news of a little place like this with others? I prayed that opportunities would open up.
I brought a coworker to visit, and she recommended that I reach out to the local newspaper to propose they write a story about it. After two weeks of not responding, the reporter gave me a call saying he was on his way there to start writing his story. Two days later, it was published. I then asked my dad, who hosts a talk show for PBS, if he could interview her. After reading the article, he was won over. The episode is set to air this month. Then I proposed inviting her to Crossroads, and our friend Rita suggested we invite her sister Regina, a nurse practitioner who works with seniors in their homes, to speak as well.
Everything came full circle the night of the Crossroads event. My grandfather came to hear Thumbelina and Regina speak, and everything hit me at once. Why was God so faithful to each of the questions I’ve asked Him, from the years when I was still in college, up until now? Why did he take the time to respond to each of my anxieties and desires. . . but in a way that I never could have expected? I can’t formulate an answer. All I can do is come to the conclusion that God’s mercy and love surpasses my comprehension. On this mystery alone can I rely to find value and beauty in my life.
Stephen, New York, NY