Tales From India: Don’t Spit

Tales From IndiaRecently, I had the opportunity to travel in India. This trip made quite an impact on me, so over the next month, I’m eager to tell you about the things I saw, the lessons I learned, and the impressions I was left with during my travels.

The story I will start with does not fall chronologically at the beginning of my trip, but it’s the one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Together with our community partners, the Church Health Center celebrated the official groundbreaking of our future home at Crosstown Concourse this past weekend. The Sears Crosstown building has sat idle for the last twenty years, an emblem of urban blight in Memphis. However, Saturday’s groundbreaking activities demonstrated how an eyesore can be transformed into a thriving center of good. Every place is holy if we only take the time to see how.

But first, India.

Because of a glitch in connecting flights, our group ended up in Kolkota (historically Calcutta) for a few hours, and this afforded us time to see the Mother House for the Missionaries of Charity. This is where Mother Teresa worked tirelessly for so many years caring for those who were dying in the streets. The abject poor—of which there are millions in the city—still come to the Missionaries of Charity.

Others come as a sort of pilgrimage. Mother Teresa’s tomb, encased in marble, is also in this building. With a steady stream of visitors, it seems out of place for the modest premises, but it is a place of pilgrimage for many who choose to kneel and pray there.

And then there are visitors curious about the place where Mother Teresa lived and worked, people like my fellow travelers and me with a bit of time on their hands.

The building, which now includes a tiny museum commemorating Mother Teresa’s life, is a simple structure. As one would expect, Mother Teresa lived with a minimum of comforts. Her narrow room, visible to visitors now, has only a single bed, a rough wooden table, and a few pictures on the wall. Another room displays a few of her belongings—her glasses, a toothbrush, a typewriter, her sari and sandals, handwritten letters. At one point, an older nun lifted a blanket on top of a small bookcase and revealed Mother’s Teresa’s Nobel Prize for Peace. It was visually unimpressive, just a sheet of paper and a medal.

After a few minutes I walked outside. The streets of Calcutta were right before me. People were begging and trying to sell me Mother Teresa memorabilia. I knew that just a few blocks away was poverty beyond my understanding.

Then my eye caught a sign above the main entrance to the building. A blue sign with large block letters read Missionaries of Charity. The second sign, yellow, was the one that made me think twice. Printed in both Hindi and English, it said, “Do not spit. Holy place.”

At first it struck me as funny, an odd juxtaposition of instruction and information. People in India spit all the time just out of habit, though, so the sign was appropriate on a practical level. For me, it also grew to be profound on a spiritual level.

“Do not spit. Holy place.”

Isn’t that what we do all the time? We spit on what we do not understand is holy ground. We spit just out of habit, without thinking, without giving a second thought to the possibility that the place where we stand might be holy ground.

I don’t know very much about Calcutta. I do know about Memphis. I see us spitting every day on what I am sure is holy ground. We do it in our work, in our homes, in the streets, all without realizing we are dishonoring sacred space.

“Do not spit. Holy place.”

We need to think a little more before we do this in our own communities. We need to recognize that the place God gives us is indeed holy precisely because God has led us to this place. It is holy, and to spit on it makes no sense.

I left India enthralled with the complexity of Indian society. It’s a vast country with an enormous population and ancient religious traditions. Indian life is constantly enmeshed with the life of the spirit. We in the US should learn how to live this way better. We do indeed walk on holy ground every day.

don't spit

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How Engaging Others With Kindness Eases Stress

Did you celebrate Valentine’s Day over the weekend? Even though I can’t endorse mass consumption of chocolate and sweets, one thing I do like about this holiday is that it encourages us to take stock in the people who mean the most to us. It reorients us towards kindness.

As it turns out, treating others with kindness is not only good for our relationships. It’s good for our personal health and wellbeing, too.

How Engaging Others With Kindness Eases Stress

I once heard Ward Archer, the record producer, advertising executive, and serial entrepreneur, talk about a business meeting that caused him great angst. He had created a first-rate presentation and was eager to wow a client in his downtown Memphis office. The meeting began well enough, but suddenly the client had an anxious look on his face. Nothing Ward did seemed to re-engage the client’s attention.

Finally, Ward asked, “Have we just missed the boat with the direction you wanted to take?”

The man replied, “No, everything in your presentation is fine. But I parked on the street and only had a quarter for the meter. I’m afraid I’m going to get a ticket.”

This led Ward to propose that all parking be free for Downtown businesses. But his story illustrates how off track we can get when we don’t understand what is causing another person’s stress. In fact, failing to understand the other person’s stress can create unnecessary stress in us.

On a long plane ride, I began hearing an irritating clicking sound coming from a passenger sitting right in front of me. At first I thought it was a child. Then I realized it was an older man.

The clicking picked at my nerves, agitating me. It was so bad I turned to my wife and remarked about the sound loudly enough for the man to hear me. The clicking amplified in my brain until I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

Then the man got up to go to the restroom. The irritation stopped. Only then did I realize that the man was blind, and the clicking was the sound he made while reading Braille. Humiliation flashed through me. But because I understood what was happening, when the man returned I was able to refocus on what I was doing.

On another trip, I was at an airport waiting patiently in line to ask a question of the gate agent. Just when my turn came, a man with a thick Indian accent wearing a turban stepped in front of me. Rather than being irritated, I listened to what he asked. He had been waiting at another gate only to realize his plane was not there. The busy gate agent told him matter-of-factly that his plane had left and he would need to go to customer service — and pointed him to a very long line. After I got the answer to my own question, I went to find the man. I learned he had just arrived in America from India and was headed to meet his family in Texas. He showed me his boarding pass, which clearly indicated his flight would leave from the gate where he had waited. He had done nothing wrong. I explained to him what he would have to do now, and he was grateful for the help.

I had done a good deed and the result was the opposite of stress for both of us.

It’s so important to understand the other person’s stress, both to be able to communicate and help the other person and to manage our own stress level. Stress becomes destructive when we let small irritants grow into serious distractions.

Your neighbor leaves his garbage can in an undesirable spot. Your co-worker lets food go bad in the break-room refrigerator. Someone sings loudly and off-key in church. A sales representative calls you during dinner. A hurried stranger pushes in front of you in line.

Do any of these experiences really matter?

We cannot eliminate stress in our lives, but it’s pointless to increase it for no good reason. If
we seek to engage other people with kindness, we ourselves are calmer and more relaxed.

Kindness reduces stress — and that’s good for your health.

Why We Must Engage in the Immunization Debate with Grace and Compassion

By now you’ve seen it on Facebook, your nightly newscast, or even at your child’s playgroup. Maybe you’ve even contributed to it.

The immunization debate.

The recent outbreak of measles in the US has reignited an intense, passionate conversation (although I use that term loosely because it implies listening, which has been largely absent from this debate) about the role childhood immunizations play in preserving public health.

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Family with fifteen children lined up for oral polio vaccine, around 1963. Source

I am old enough to remember lining up as a child in the early 1960s to receive a sugar cube that had been dripped with a pink liquid containing the polio vaccine. It was a great adventure, and I definitely wanted another sugar cube.

I now know that at the time there was a raging debate between Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin over whether a polio vaccine made from a weakened, live virus or one that had been made from a killed virus was safer and more effective. The science of that matter continues to be played out in some ways in current scientific literature, but the end result was the eradication of polio in the US in 1979.

There are still living older adults who were affected by polio. Steve Cohen, the congressman from Memphis is one. He walks with a limp because of the weakness in his right leg. He considers the CDC and funding for research around issues like vaccines to be the most effective national defense system the US has against epidemics.

Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor for NBC News, recently tweeted,

But today’s intense debate is not about the formulation of a vaccine – it’s one that seems to pit a parent’s personal freedom to choose against the common good of collective health.

The anger expressed goes something like this: “No one can tell me what is best for my child. I will decide. Your science might be wrong.” On the other side are those who say that choice isn’t an option when it comes to public health.

A mother who believes that vaccinations may harm her child in any manner is acting in love, and we must recognize that. Her decision not to vaccinate is not made for the purpose of harming her child or anyone else’s. Being called an idiot by someone persuaded by the science to form a different conclusion will not change her mind. I see no value in vilifying her.

In the same way, people convinced of the “greater good” of vaccinations should not suffer the insinuation that they are not smart enough to avoid being duped by the pharmaceutical companies or don’t care enough about their kids to protect them from harmful chemicals.

The bullying seems to work in both directions. And in both directions, it serves no purpose.

I do believe that everyone involved loves our children and wants the best for them.

Both positions may have merit, but neither attitude will help address the issue the country faces.

So where is the voice of the church and people of faith in this debate? Similar to the evolution and abortion debates, this is not just about science. How do we resolve ethical dilemmas when personal freedoms potentially threaten the community as a whole?

There is vast literature written from theological points of view on how to do that. I would say it is time for the faith community to dust off those books and enter the conversation with grace and compassion. We will not make progress through the media or through the impassioned voices at either extreme.

The resolution of the problem is not easy. But at this point, this is not a debate that can be won through science alone. It is a moral and theological dilemma. It won’t be solved by who can shout the loudest, but we may make strides by learning to listen to each other and understanding each other’s motives rather than rushing to judgment.