Who is my Neighbor?

The aisle was crowded with locals and summer vacationers hoping to buy the delicious smelling baked goods emerging from the hot ovens. This famous Maine store also made tasty gluten free/vegan muffins which I was eager to try given my allergies. We were heading home from a lovely Fourth of July family celebration and I was feeling grateful for the time spent together. As we waited for our order, I gave my niece a big hug, thanking her for accompanying me to the doctor that morning. A specialist in Maine was caring for my wrist which happened to get caught in a dog’s mouth during vacation. As I took my arm down from my niece’s shoulders, I heard a small voice behind me exclaim, “Are you giving out those hugs for free?” I turned around to see a tanned, elderly woman in the crowd looking at us. I instinctively reached out to give her the hug she so clearly sought. She told us that she hadn’t had a hug or any physical contact with another person since her husband had died and that she really missed being loved by other people. After a short conversation, I reached out to her again and offered another, longer hug to let her know that she mattered and was not alone. As we left the store, I kept thinking about this woman and wondered, “Who is her neighbor?”

(Fourth of July photos in Maine – celebrating Grace & Andrew’s engagement.)

Saint Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” She also said that “the poor” can often be found right in our own families. As I thought about the woman from the store in Maine, I wondered how had she become so lonely that she would risk asking a stranger for a hug. Where were all the people in her life; extended family, friends, neighbors and possibly children? The whole situation tugged at my heart and forced me to reevaluate my own life. Was I was truly loving the lonely people around me?

A few weeks ago, after reading the familiar story of the Good Samaritan (from the Gospel of Luke) at Mass, I returned to my thoughts of the woman from the Maine store. In many ways, she was the broken person laying on the ground in this famous parable. As in the story, many had passed by her without noticing her pain (including me before she called out). Or perhaps they did notice and chose to keep walking for fear of getting involved. It’s easy to see how this can happen in today’s busy world – we don’t look up from our phones to see the people around us who may need a friend. We are all responsible, but the Good Samaritan – Jesus – reminds us to pay attention and treat every person in our midst as our neighbor. We may not have to go as far as to pay for someone’s health care or lodging, but we can at least show kindness, friendship, and love in our daily lives.

My encounter with the woman in Maine has had a profound impact on me. She is my neighbor – despite the fact that I live in Massachusetts and she in Maine. Perhaps I could have done more to show love to her, but I do know that our encounter had meaning for both of us. She remains in my prayers as do all those who live in loneliness and despair. Perhaps we can all respond to the invitation from the Good Samaritan and reach out to folks who need a hug or helping hand, wherever we find them amid our busy lives. Joy, smiles, and a better world will follow every encounter of love.

(Photos from our July visit to Nashville – Courtney & Matt’s engagement.)

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