“Wow. For a woman, that’s…”
“That too she’s a girl”
“Being a woman, she’s…”
Yeah, don’t you hate it when people say that? Those are some of the most condescending things I’ve ever heard anyone say. Not very different from the recent “despite being a Muslim” remark a certain man made, but while that comment commended national attention, these comments are very frequently made in almost every discussion about any female achiever, which is actually a dangerous thing to say, because you’re basically saying that women are inherently only capable of so much, and attaining success is something that deserves additional praise, as if being born as a woman is a bane. That is what got me thinking. Are there any women achievers who did not have to deal with such toxic thoughts? Mother Teresa was the first name that sprung to my mind.
So, I’ve been asked to “share the story”, but I would like to believe that her story is something that is quite well known. That is the comfortable assumption that I’ve always had for so long, but surprisingly, I was wrong. Because while most people have heard of her name, and a little bit about the work that she did at Kolkata, they know little else about this woman. So I’m going to start off with some basic truths about the life of one of the most inspirational people to walk on the planet.
Firstly, Mother Teresa was not an Indian. Okay, she technically did take up Indian Citizenship, but she was actually from a city called Skopje, in present day Macedonia, and was given the birth name Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She lived some 30 years in Yugoslavia, before moving to India, and the rest of the story is pretty well documented.
Some credit for her work, I think, should be given to her mother. Despite being widowed and very poor herself, Teresa’s mother often extended an open invitation to the city’s destitute to eat with them. “Never eat a single mouthful unless it is being shared” Teresa would be told, and when she asked her mother who they were sharing with, her mother would reply “Some are our relations, but they all are our people”.
When Mother Teresa came to India, she did not come armed with the desire to heal the suffering. She spent 15 years in India teaching an all girl’s school, and in 1946, while she was travelling by train through Darjeeling, is when she heard her “call within the call”, to leave the convent, live among the poor, and help them.
And thus begins her story. She spent a few months to receive basic medical training, and then ventured into the slums of Calcutta. She initially started a school in the city, and very soon, she was tending to all needs to the poor.
The first few years must have been traumatic for Teresa. She had left the convent school, and had immediately started working in the slums. She had no income, and had to resort to begging for supplies, but she credits the suffering in these initial stages to the exemplary work that she went on to perform. The rest of her story is well known, from the establishment of the Missionaries of Charity, to the Home for the Dying, the leper houses, and the Orphanages. By 1960, she had expanded her work all over India, and by the 1970s, her charity had opened houses all over the world.
Mother Teresa till today stands as the perfect example of humanism. She lived a life of love, sacrifice and kindness, and you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who does not admire her work. Take this for example, in the height of the Lebanon War, she acted as a peacemaker, brokering a temporary ceasefire between the Israeli and Palestinian troops, travelled through the warzone, and rescued 40 kids from a broken hospital.
There are many valid criticisms that are held against the woman, and while it is true that there was a considerable shortage of food and painkillers in her hospital, to say that she did not care for the poor is an incredibly fallacious argument. Mother Teresa literally ran away from a life of comfort, and dedicated her entire life to charity, working for the upliftment of the poor, the diseased and the neglected in the country. Fact remains, before Teresa came around, they were just that. Poor, diseased, neglected. Mother Teresa literally changed the way everyone looked at them. People who had done absolutely nothing for the poor of Calcutta all their lives were suddenly concerned about the conditions of the hospices they were subjected to, and the quality of care they were receiving from this woman. In that sense, Teresa had the ultimate victory, forcing her naysayers to care about the poor, which really is ideologically the only thing Teresa ever wanted.
I believe that there are lots of things that we can learn from the way Mother Teresa lived her life. Apart from the message of charity that exudes from her story, we can also learn from her dedication to her goal, her perseverance, and her unflinching attitude in the face of criticism. We must remember that our actions, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem, are important, and it is to that end that I will leave you with a quote from Teresa herself:
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just the one”