By Lynsey Nelson I have attempted to serve others for much of my life, particularly those in dire need. Long before I learned of the second precept, I was aware of suffering in the world and had dedicated myself to the alleviation of suffering and the practice of loving kindness. But I soon discovered the gap between my intentions and my actual ability to "work toward the well-being of people, animals, and plants."
At fifteen, my parents divorced as the result of alcoholism. I felt betrayed by life and abandoned by my father. I became pregnant, addicted to drugs, and a thief. And I came in direct contact with my own pain. By my early twenties, I was off to Calcutta to atone for my "sins" and become a saint by serving the poorest of the poor alongside Mother Teresa. The magnitude and intensity of suffering I faced overwhelmed me into a state of paralysis. I was devastated by the realization that I didn't have the abilities necessary to cope with such adversity. I returned home disillusioned.
After a few aimless years of seeking to be of service in the world, I encountered the plight of the homeless in St. Paul. I decided at once that I must try to save them from their affliction. I founded a free-store named "The Mustard Seed" and adorned a large wooden cross to prove my faith. I even wore clothing to become "one of them." It took me a while to see the importance of not assuming someone else's life or experience and realize that faith has little to do with something worn around one's neck. I learned about love and disappointment. I learned that I could only save myself, no one else.
There were other realizations and misunderstandings—like the day a woman pulled up in a Cadillac and demanded that her contribution of clothing be removed from her trunk immediately because it "smelled so God-awful," and her outrage when we refused to accept it; my outrage at her for thinking we should; the frustration of "begging for pennies" from those with an overabundance of resources, so that we might sustain our small efforts at assisting refugees entering the country with practically nothing; and the judgment I held for those whose approach to generosity differed from mine; being appalled at having my purse stolen by a person who frequented the Mustard Seed, and at myself for bringing home a donation for my own use.
Last winter, a Southeast Asian teenager appeared at my doorstep, hungry and humiliated, her hair crudely chopped to the scalp by her parents for misbehaving and disgracing them, her frail body starved for a meal a mother might make, having lived primarily off beer and potato chips for days at a time while on the run. She had been rejected by her family and community who did not understand her Americanized ways and by Americans who didn't understand her Asian ways. There was no place to send her for help. There she stood, resembling a concentration camp survivor, facing me.
I invited her to spend the night, unsure of what answers concerning her fate the morning might bring. Though haunted by her condition and trust in me to help, I struggled over the possibility of her living with my husband Mathew and me. The immediacy of my compassion gave way to the reality of what this prospect entailed. Being a child's guide and advocate demanded special strength and skills—was I prepared enough? The thought of giving up the privacy of our home, which I had previously guarded with my life, terrified me. We had plans to leave the country. What if she needed to stay for months or even years? Did we have enough money to support her? Would I have to cook her non-vegetarian meals? How could I tolerate heavy metal rock music? I was not a very willing candidate for the responsibility that presented itself.
Through the sleepless hours that ensued emerged a revelation that awakened me to compose this poem:
This life is not my own but belongs to you and you who are delivered to me on time without hands. I imagined it to be mine, until a girl came as a letter would whose contents are unknown.
Enveloped in the wrappings of age, she had carved "Love Hurts" up the soft of her arm in the printing of a child. It will scar, I thought. Later, she will wish that she hadn't done it— the meaning of which she could not yet know. There was no choice though I tried to pretend that, too, was mine. "Come in," I said. She did; ready to be opened.
Kou moved in with us, as did three other runaways she had been hanging with for emotional and physical survival. All but one were under the age of sixteen and each in a similar predicament. Reconciliation with their individual selves, families, and affirming aspects of both cultures became our focus.
Adjusting to a life parenting teenagers was very difficult—at times excruciatingly so. Especially since their wounds were much deeper than what we had imagined. But by assimilating my past experiences and appreciating how much more I had still to learn I was able to recognize the gift they were to us. As we opened them, they opened us.
The second precept asks that we possess nothing that belongs to others. Thanks to the unexpected arrival of a lost girl, I now know that this includes my life. Responsibility and caring for what stands before me are no longer looked upon as an infringement or obligation, but as a challenge of beauty and wonder. An encounter with a piece of myself.
There is nothing to hold onto nothing. Open your fists and discover the palms of God (or Buddha) there, there— You have been grasping, grasping with hands already full.
Linsey Nelson lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.