Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Thanks, Guilt and Pity (But no thanks for guilt or pity)

March 31, 2012

My Oma-Would you want to make this woman sad??

Working in a hospital I am surrounded by the ailing and afflicted. I can’t say I am desensitized to suffering. I feel for many of those who are battling painful, frightening, and possibly life-threatening  conditions, as well as those who love and care for them. However when everyone you come into contact with has some type of malady, you do begin to reserve your sympathy and emotional energy for those who are truly in agony in order to preserve your sanity. Every so often I meet a person who touches me and I can’t help being drawn into their pain. My father once told me never to feel sorry for other people. I understand what he was trying to tell me. He isn’t a heartless person without concern for his fellow man. But rationally speaking,  feeling sad for others can accomplish nothing but just that: making you sad. Feeling pity for another person is passive rather than active, and actually can harm someone more than it can help them by further validating and solidifying their role as a victim when in fact most people don’t want to be viewed in this light at all. However it tends to be human nature for our hearts to go out to the weak and the suffering.

Today as I was sitting and eating lunch in the foyer of the hospital, a lovely elderly lady started to chat me up about nothing in particular. As we continued to talk she told me that her husband had just had a stroke and was getting out of the hospital that day at 4pm. He would require a home care nurse since he couldn’t walk properly yet, he had difficulty swallowing, his speech was garbled and it was unclear how much function he would regain. She teared up a little as she spoke, and I must admit my eyes got a little watery too. She wasn’t asking for sympathy, it was evident she felt alone and was reaching for someone, anyone to talk to. It was right about then that a young man about my age in a wheelchair approached a ramp leading up to the café. He was attempting to maneuver himself at the correct angle to enable him to go up the ramp and was having quite a bit of difficulty. He finally realized this feat, only to have to get up the actual ramp, which seemed to give him some trouble. I saw that there were many people watching him, and it seemed as if quite a few looked poised to jump in and push him. No one did though, and I believe it was because he looked so determined wheeling himself up that nobody seemed to know if this was the right thing to do. I assume they were afraid of embarrassing him or insulting him by insinuating he was unable to make it himself. The old woman and I watched him fight his way up the ramp silently, and then I felt her touch my hand with hers. “We are very fortunate” she said. I looked at her, this woman who felt blessed though her husband would very likely never say her name again, and I felt humbled. No, this woman didn’t need my pity. In many ways, she may be better off than I. I’ll explain.

On my way home, I started thinking about all of the little things I take for granted on a daily basis. The fact I have friends and family that love me, I live in a great city, I have a secure job and a roof over my head. I take for granted my health, and that I have enough food to eat. It may sound repetitive to talk about how deplorable it is that in North America portion sizes have increased 2-5 times since 1970 while obesity rates are epidemic, and at the same time there are people in the world still dying of starvation. But regardless of how often you hear it, it is still wrong. I am a second generation Canadian. My grandparents lived in Europe during WWII when people often didn’t have enough food to fill their stomachs. When they moved to Canada, they were extremely poor and had to work harder than I or my children will ever understand to make a life for themselves. To people like them and countless others who came to this country for a better life, being able to feed your family well was no small blessing, a validation for all of their tribulations. There was a time in history when being plump was a sign of high social standing. The poor could not afford good food and so were thin and wasted looking. It is alarming how things have changed such that now “thin is in”. In fact, with fast food and pre-packaged food usually costing less than fresh fruit and vegetables and lean meats, those in lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to be overweight than the middle and upper class in today’s day and age.

When you ask people what’s really important in life, one of the most popular answers is being healthy. Another is having enough food to eat. However, at any given time it is estimated that 45% of women are dieting.  At some point in their lives, most women will actively deprive themselves of food. While not all diets are harmful, and in some cases losing weight will improve health, many women engage in practices that are potentially dangerous under the guise of health, such as fad diets, detoxes, fasts or juice and soup diets. In the poorest nations such as India and northern Africa, the average caloric intake is between 1400-1900 calories daily for women. The daily requirement for most women is about 2000, with about 900 being the amount needed for human functioning. Many diets today recommend caloric intakes of 1500 calories daily or less making their devotees at least if not more malnourished than many “starving” women in 3rd world countries. When you think of the focus we put on our bodies in this light, it seems so shallow, doesn’t it?

I may sound judgemental but that is not my intention. I do not mean to be the pot that calls the kettle black. As a woman who has battled an eating disorder since a teenager I am no stranger to body image issues or depriving myself of food. I have likely binged and purged enough food to feed a small starving village. When I think about how important I once thought that being thin was or how happy I thought that losing 5 more pounds would make me it seems so irrational now. I know that an eating disorder is a disease and I have the insight now to understand that it isn’t really about food or how you look, but I still carry around a lot of guilt about the damage I did to my body and what I took for granted during the time I was abusing myself. One image that stays in my mind is the look of concern and pain on my Oma’s face whenever I would go over to her place for dinner and I would avoid eating the things she would prepare for me and try to shovel onto my plate in true mennonite fashion. For her, cooking for her family is showing love. I’m not sure how much she knows about my eating disorder, or even if she could fathom such a thing, but I know she realized I was sick by how frightened and sad she looked. Even now, every time I go there she is so concerned about what I can and can’t eat, and if I’m OK. I was relieved when finally the last time I saw her she deemed me “good and healthy”. Someone like her could never understand why a person would deprive themselves of food on purpose. She has seen what real hunger looks like. Her idea of a light meal is Rollkuchen (fried bread made of flour and whipping cream). Food nourishes your body and keeps you alive. It is vital to survival. It also can be an excuse to bring family together. My Oma grew up in a different time, but as I was reminded today, it seems we could all learn a thing or two from our elders.