Every now and then, life gives you a reset button. This past March, I went on a serving trip to South Africa with a group from our church. Our team’s main purpose was to visit patients at an AIDS hospice outside Johannesburg. Honestly, I was ambivalent about spending three days with patients who I’d never met and who I would probably never see again. What strategic value could possibly come from playing Bingo with very sick people?
Man, was I wrong. Maria, one of the patients at the hospice, was a big reason for my change of heart. Though she was sick enough to be confined to a wheelchair, Maria was perhaps the snappiest, most lively person at the hospice. She gamely participated in all of our activities with a sharp quip thrown into the bargain. “Come on, you have to do better,” she would say with a twinkle in her eye when the Bingo caller would call a letter not on her card.
Maria was among a small group of patients who began to wait for our team and tease us about being late or not bringing enough treats. She good-naturedly encouraged, prodded, and cajoled her fellow patients into doing more than they thought they could.
In short, Maria was a leader…from a wheelchair… while struggling with an often-terminal disease… at the end of a life lived largely under political and economic discrimination most of us can barely imagine.
Why? Because Maria’s mindset was other-centered, grateful, hopeful. She suffered no delusions about her disease’s likely outcome or even her country’s difficult and ongoing transition to a more just society. But she was not darkened by her environment. Rather, she brought light to those around her. And she helped transform my view of the hospice patients. In my mind, they went from being sick people to friends who happened to be very sick.
Maria died this week. I hope to remember and cultivate her mindset in myself and those around me. Maybe playing Bingo has strategic value after all.