A while back, there was a young girl that I knew. At first glance everything seemed to be going all right in her life: she was a diligent student, she was teetotal, and she was a regular church-goer. But her seemingly ordered and good life was blighted by something deep down inside her, something that massively troubled her mind as well as her body. Her problems made her friends and some members of her local community deeply worried. Most of them tried to help, but they felt powerless to do so despite their best efforts. Others resorted to rambling on, making pointless remarks or giving ill-targeted pieces of advice. The task of helping her was given to me. We spent countless hours trying to find the root cause of her problems and to find the best way out of the mess she was in. The whole process took about two years in total, but the final result was extremely satisfactory – she completely recovered and found her long-lost joie-de-vivre.
Her story came to mind when I heard today’s first reading, where the prophet Elijah faces the heart-breaking scene of a dying child – the only child – of his host, a widow. To put it into context: she’s the same widow who was asked by the prophet to give him some food during the famine. In response she revealed she only had just enough to prepare one last meal for her son and herself, and then they would await death. The prophet promised her in the name of his God that enough food would be provided for each coming day. She believed him, shared her food with him, and invited him to stay in her house; and the promise was kept, until the fateful day when her son was dying of a terminal illness. The prophet must have felt deeply sorry for the extremely hospitable and trusting woman in her plight. But in her despair, the woman accused Elijah for her son’s certain death: ‘What quarrel have you with me, man of God? Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and to kill my son?’
Elijah could have reacted in many ways: he could have taken offence at her remarks, or he could have preached about the inevitability and acceptance of death, or he could have bemoaned the systematic failures in the healthcare available. Each one of these would have been a way of dealing with his personal upset, not with hers. But he decided to act in the best interests of the widow and her dying son, and his actions eventually brought the boy back to life.
Self-importance, self-interest and self-centredness seem to be on the rise in our society; once ‘reserved’ to the influential and the powerful, these attitudes are becoming much more common features nowadays. It’s all about ‘me’ and ‘mine’ while ignoring the needs of others. I’ve witnessed that that markedly while travelling by plane; people occupying tables in the eateries for hours without actually having any food on them; others cluttering up the overhead lockers and reacting angrily to the flight attendants’ polite requests to move some stuff under their seats to make room for other passengers’ hand luggage… These are just a couple of examples, but we can find plenty in our own surroundings. Or, perhaps, in our own attitude? Empathy is the way to change people’s lives for the better, when it’s not limited to emotional stirring but employed instead to push us into action.