My church employs a chef whose family came to the States from Bosnia in the mid-1990s. When they arrived here, our chef’s husband needed a prosthetic leg, which cost $24,000. Knowing that they could not afford the prosthesis, several families within the church pooled their money to purchase the leg. “That’s not something you forget,” our chef told me earlier this week.
I’d run into her in the church kitchen, where I smelled something wonderful. There wasn’t a church event planned at that time of the week, and I wondered what she was cooking. She told me she was preparing a meal for a widow from our congregation, one of those families who helped purchase the $24,000 leg. This widow has lots of dietary restrictions, yet our chef is glad to prepare tasty meals that follow the dietary code. And she always refuses payment.
“That’s so sweet,” I said.
“It’s not being sweet,” she told me. “‘Hi, how are you?’ That’s sweet. This is just being human.”
I didn’t know what to say. My friend, the Bosnian chef, does not mince words, and she’d put me in my place.
I’ve thought about what she said quite a bit over the past week, being human versus being sweet. And she’s right; there is a difference. I had to think about all the times I’ve thought of someone as sweet, and I haven’t been giving them enough credit. My son is sweet when he gives me a hug, but he’s human when he shows his great capacity for compassion, when he immediately thinks to pray for someone in need.
Many people call this being Christian, and if you call yourself Christian, you certainly should pray for others, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit those in prison, just to name a few. But I think it also short-changes those people who don’t share my beliefs, yet are compelled to act in ways that are selfless, in ways that humble themselves while serving others.
Perhaps these people are simply being human. Perhaps it’s the way we’re all born, but then the pressures of life get in the way and cloud this original purpose.
I often see the ugly side of people, the kind that gets reported in the news: mindless mobs, riots, senseless violence. But even though they are humans committing these acts, I don’t think its our humanity that is to blame. Think of how we are born: innocent. It’s not until we grow older, when we can choose how we act, that the problems arise.
Our brains set humans apart from the rest of the animals. But not only that. While some animals are able to feel compassion – think of service dogs or perhaps the gorillas that have learned sign language – it is our humanity that leads us to reach out to other people in need and help them. Our humanity is our goodness, not the ugliness. It leads us to give when we expect nothing in return, to show our gratitude in the best ways that we are able.
I don’t think it’s a mistake that this simple message came to me at the start of my favorite season – but also the season when so many people become cynical. Consumerism is about to rear its ugly head in many ways in the next couple months. People will have their feelings hurt when they don’t receive what they expect they deserve for Christmas, or they’ll spend all their energy trying to give the perfect gift, plan the perfect event. But all of us – all of us, no matter what we believe or celebrate – have the capacity to be human with one another. In today’s society, it may even take a little rebellion to get back to our humanity, but I’m willing to try. And I think it’s something we should practice all the time.