Cheesecake, Death, and Altruism

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December 12, 2011 by rebelwithalabelmaker

I have another death related story (this is how we celebrate the Holidays around here)…

It’s not just the holidays, of course.  I am supposed to be keeping a journal of things to write about for a Sermon class I am taking.  I’m supposed to draw deep insights from my daily life.  It would be easier if my daily life was a bit… deeper.  Right now the journal is something like “Built Lego stuff with kids for three hours.  Creativity.  Structure.”  “Cleaned toilet.  Social implications of Graffiti.”  “Ate Cheesecake.  Dying people.  Altruism.”  That third’s one’s the charm.  Or at least, more of a charm than first and second…

I associate cheesecake with the death of my friend Pat, who was a huge extrovert with a deep love of desert.  I resonated with Pat.  I loved visiting her in the hospital, where she would help plan my wedding, suggest practical jokes, review committee minutes, and of course try hard to feed me.

“I can’t take your food.” I would say, thinking I can’t take food from a person who is DYING.  She snorted.

“They keep telling me I have to fatten up to fight the cancer.  All my life I’ve tried to lose weight, and now they’re telling me to gain it.  And they bring me this stuff.”  She held up a can of Ensure—a liquid food supplement that was sent along with the somewhat tasteless looking snack.  “Have you ever tried this stuff?”  She shuddered.

“It’s very healthy, I think.” I said.

“It sure tastes healthy,” she answered flatly.  “I keep telling them that as part of my cancer treatment I need Cheesecake.  CHEESECAKE.  Not this Chemotherapy stuff.  You tell your husband he should start prescribing people CHEESECAKE.”

“I’m not sure they think Cheesecake is the optimal nutrition, though.” I said. 

“What do I need optimal nutrition for?” she asked.  “What’s the worst that could happen?” 

Pat got her cheesecake.  That final round of Chemotherapy worked, and bought her several more months.  Later, she had a whole crowd of us who’d visited her in the hospital over for dinner as a thank you.  And she presented my husband with a beautifully wrapped present.

“In gratitude for your help.” She said to him.  Gary took it, a bit puzzled as to why he—out of all the people who had visited her—was being honoured with a gift.  He unwrapped it slowly, and out tumbled a gleaming silver can of Ensure.

Pat roared with laughter, as did everyone else, including Gary.

“I don’t need it now,” she said. “You should have it.  You should drink it.  See what you think.  Then, maybe you’ll start prescribing CHEESECAKE.”  She grinned, and took a gleeful bite of her desert. 

I don’t know what I expected when I started going to visit Pat in the last few months of her life, but it didn’t involve having so much… fun.  I felt a bit guilty about this… as though I must not be helping “right”.  Somewhere along the line, I absorbed an idea of what “real” helping should look like, and it involved less laughing and eating.  More crying. 

 More self sacrifice.  Perhaps some careful study.  The true helping heroes, I figure, are the ones whose first allegiance is to doing the most good possible.  The true helpers analyze what is the Very Best Thing of All To Do by reading 3,417 pages of research and then they donate money to the charities that have the Maximum Impact at The Source.  Then, maybe they do a little light research of their own on the weekends in their spare time.  Those people, the True Helpers, have the broad, deep impact that is really needed.  They distill things to their most effective.

These people are the Ensure Drinkers of the helping world.  No messing around.  No waste.  I’m a Cheesecake eater myself.  I guiltily smuggle a couple of dollars to the guy on the corner even though I know the money would be better spent addressing the root causes of his poverty.  I drop off a nice little gift to a friend having a hard day just for the fun of seeing her face light up—even though she’s not really “needy”.

I’m not the only one battling these cravings.  We live in a help-hungry society.  There’s nothing like the feeling of watching another person’s face transform because of something you’ve done—and it’s an opportunity that’s too rare.  Despite the abundance of need, the ways that we are asked to help are often disconnected, impersonal, and without cheer.  Send money now.  Sign this petition.  Write this letter.  These are the things that will have the greatest effect, but can sometimes leave us feeling like we’re exhausted from helping—while simultaneously feeling like we haven’t helped at all.

Ensure.  Twenty six essential vitamins and minerals, and why do I still feel curiously empty?

Maybe the point of helping isn’t just to improve the world—just like the point of eating isn’t solely to absorb nutrients.  A multi-vitamin or two can make all difference in the world, but pure Ensure isn’t a healthy diet.  Maybe acts of altruism, like food, can be over-processed and lose something.  Maybe too much Cheesecake isn’t good either—maybe helping in whatever way we feel like is kind of like eating whatever catches our eye—not a good idea to do too often.  And way more likely to happen if we’re starving.

 So what’s the solution for the help-hungry person who wants to make a difference?  Maybe in every day we a mixture of things.  A healthy diet might have a multivitamin and some fruits and vegetables and a bit of chocolate after dinner… and maybe altruism works the same way.  Some well thought out “root cause” stuff, and an act or two of gloriously frivolous kindness here and there.  Lots of good wholesome stuff that was mixed up at home out of ingredients that you can recognize.  A good balance of pleasure and substance.  Something that renews and energizes.

Consumed with delight, good company, and a pause for gratitude.



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