Deep in the night, while most of us are asleep in our beds, the mother of a teenager I know begins her 10-hour shift stocking shelves at a discount store. She starts at 2 a.m. At noon, while many of us are taking a lunch break, she is leaving work and driving to other people's homes to make extra money cleaning them. She's usually asleep when daughter returns home from high school.
The daughter has about three hours between returning home from school and heading to a store, where she works four hours every weeknight. Her father's workday begins at 7:30 a.m. and he is home by 6 - after she has left for her job. Her older sister, with whom she shares a bedroom in the family's apartment, works 40 hours a week at the same discount store as the mom and takes one class a semester at a community college. The family rarely is awake at the same time, and seldom eats meals together.
The young lady admires her hard-working parents and doesn't seem to take anything for granted. The details she shares with me are a matter-of-fact part of our conversations. She's a cheerful soul.
I couldn't help but consider, however, all the differences between her childhood and my son's, who is close to her age. Yes, I work long hours outside the home, as does my husband. But our 15 year old does not have to work at an after-school job 20-plus hours a week. Instead, he enjoys a wide range of extracurricular activities: bike racing, baseball, chamber-music orchestra, Model UN, and jazz band - activities this young lady's family will never have the time nor the money to support. Is my son better off? Materially, yes.
Does his life have more intrinsic value or purpose? Not at all.
All of our lives are blessings, not entitlements. It's easy to insulate myself inside my concerns (Should we budget first to replace the broken stove or the broken washing machine?) disregarding the material plenty around me while paradoxically convincing myself that I am the sum of my family's successes.
No matter what the common mentality of our times might suggest, this young lady's family isn't defined by its working-class life, just as my family's worth lies not in the fact of our middle-class lives. At School of Community Tuesday night, we read and reflected on Chapter 5 of Father Giussani's work "The Religious Sense." He begins the chapter describing: “the heart of human beings that expresses itself with questions such as: What is the ultimate meaning of existence? Why is their pain, death, and why in the end is life worth living? Or from another point of view, what does reality consist of? And what’s it made of?”
What we share is that we all are made in the image of God. Therein lies our true identity and value. Whether we are stocking shelves in the middle of the night, practicing double bass for a chamber music concert, managing a team of professionals or driving a team of carpenters to a work site, we all carry within us a longing for the infinite.
That deepest, most important desire, can be answered only by the recognition of the Presence of Christ among us.