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Monday, December 31, 2012

Love Your Neighbour



In my early twenties I was working in my father’s company when he lost all his money because of some wrong investments in North Yemen. He had already decided to declare bankruptcy, but it was an extremely difficult decision for him, because he identified himself completely with his professional life. He knocked at my door and asked me if we could carry on a little longer. I slammed the door in his face. I was mad at him for his failure. The memory of my gesture haunted me for years, until one day, some twenty-five years later, I told him how I felt.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. “I don’t remember.”
He had forgotten, that is to say he had forgiven me a long time ago. At that moment I made peace with myself. I still think that my reaction was cruel, but at least now I now that I didn’t hurt him so much that he could not forget.                                            
However, the sense of guilt generated by this episode didn’t cure me of my selfishness. My son was the first and only person for whom I made sacrifices. I was incapable of loving anybody else in the same disinterested way. 

It was only after my conversion that I started to change. I decided to work once a week as a volunteer, feeding the poor. They gather every day in the basement of the local church and take turns sitting around a large table, waiting to be served a hot meal. People tell their stories and cry over their troubles, or remain silent, unwilling to share.  Many have small children, who chirp around the table like little birds, asking for more dessert. 
I had been there only a few times when, on a cold winter day, I had a chance to offer a new coat to a man dressed in ragged clothes. He declined, stating that he liked what he was wearing. I couldn’t help laughing: How could he like a jacket that was ripped off from top to bottom? A few days later I met that man on the street and I said hallo. He was acting in a strange way, and only then I realized that he was mentally unwell. I got scared and walked away as fast as I could. This episode made me reflect upon my attitude towards mental illness. Back in Italy, when I was in my thirties, I had cut off my relationship with two aunts, with whom I was very close, because I couldn’t deal with their erratic behavior. One of them had developed Alzheimer’s disease and was constantly calling me on the phone. The other one, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had suddenly stopped taking her medications. I changed my telephone number and disappeared from their lives: I didn’t want to be bothered. But this time I was moved by a stranger and I wanted to know more about him. I learned that he was a Vietnam veteran and believed in the existence of twenty-three hells. I’m sure he had seen plenty of them during that war, and they still haunt him. Now I call him by name and we talk whenever he’s in the mood. Behind that mane of white hair and that un-kept beard there is one of the sweetest persons I’ve ever met, a person who lost his mind because he didn’t want to kill.     

Today my husband is the main beneficiary of my conversion. Lucky for him, I’ve become so kind and forgiving that I almost don’t recognize myself. Unfortunately, he’s not willing to admit that I’m so much nicer  thanks to Jesus’ love. He thinks it’s because I’m aging, or because of whatever other silly reasons he can come up with. Yet, after twenty-five years of the same interaction between us, he’s learning to respond to the new me in a more loving way. Jesus has done for me what no one else has been able to do. This new faith is something powerful enough not to be dismissed as an illusion. 

I was only a couple of months into the process of getting to know Jesus when I read the first scholarly texts that depicted him as a failed prophet, but I went on in my search simply because I couldn’t let go. What was it exactly that I couldn’t let go of? It wasn’t the consolation that religion offers, and the curiosity about Jesus was only part of the reason for my perseverance. The truth is that I couldn’t let go of the new me. From the outside I’m the same person, only nicer, but inside I’ve changed. It’s not easy to change when you have repeated the same patterns for a lifetime. I had lived in a certain way for fifty years and in a different way for two months: Why was it so difficult to go back where I was? Because Jesus had become a tangible presence in my life. Today this feeling is even stronger, and by now I can only acknowledge that the irrational thing to do would be to deny him.