(The following is excerpted from remarks delivered at the Society of Human Resource Management Foundation conference in New York City, NY on October 4, 2021. Mr. Towey served as legal counsel to Mother Teresa for 12 years until her death.)
Mother Teresa of Calcutta taught me during the time I knew her that the greatest need of a human being is to love and be loved. She enjoyed being with and serving people, and that’s your calling, too. The more technologically-dependent and artificially intelligent the workplace becomes, the more vital your human touch and natural intelligence are.
Humans crave connections and belonging. Mother Teresa saw beyond the hunger people had for bread to the deeper hunger to love and be loved. This need is especially acute in times of uncertainty and instability like now when the social fabric that binds us together as a nation is frayed by fears and fear-mongering. Fear can bring out the worst in people and institutions. Fear is the great enemy of love. Fear feeds the stress, panic, and uncertainty we see in our country whenever lives feel threatened.
Rational, Irrational Fear of Death
There are two types of fear of death. Rational fear is what you feel when you walk in the woods and happen upon a Grizzly bear. Irrational fear is when you feel danger at every turn and it seems unsafe to venture out into the world. When society doesn’t distinguish between a rational and irrational fear of death, you get trouble. You get a generalized fear that can paralyze people to the point where some are so afraid of dying that they become afraid of living, they become afraid of others.
Mother Teresa introduced me to the truth that love casts out fear. I saw this when I lived in her home for people with AIDS in Washington, DC and accompanied many good men as they died. I learned from their experiences that it wasn’t death they feared the most, it was the prospect of dying alone, unaccompanied, isolated, as if unloved and unwanted. This fear doesn’t just play out at the death bed; it plays out upstream, in the office, when a worker’s spouse or parent is confronted with bad news about COVID. Five Wishes, a simple legal document I created 25 years ago, has flourished because it helps educate people on how to navigate the difficult but unavoidable terrain of end-of-life care, for themselves and their parents, including all of the personal, spiritual, emotional and medical issues. SHRM gave a copy of Five Wishes to all of its employees. Check it out, and fill it out.
Words of Encouragement
I leave you this morning with words of encouragement. The pandemic has made your difficult jobs even more demanding, but also, more rewarding. What a privilege you have to be there to bring a shepherd’s care to those lost in grief, anxiety, and loss, and those overwhelmed by fear. You have helped them cope and discover that they aren’t alone, even when working remotely.
Your responsibilities must seem overwhelming to you at times, and that is why a conference like today gives you a chance to step back and ponder the good you have done, and commit yourselves to doing even more. Mother Teresa was asked at the end of her life whether she was discouraged because for every person she picked up in Calcutta from the gutters, there were still 10 she didn’t reach, and that nothing much had changed in the 50 years she was doing this work. And she replied, no, she wasn’t discouraged. “God doesn’t call me to be successful; God calls me to be faithful,” she said.
Whether you are a Jew, Christian or Muslim or a person of no faith at all, the call to faithfulness to our neighbor in need is universal. It is a call to affirm human dignity, serve others, help them cope; it is an invitation to love and be loved. Mother Teresa answered that call, and if you strive to be faithful to your colleagues in the work force, you will know the same joy she knew – the joy of a life lived for others.
(Mr. Towey is founder and CEO of Aging with Dignity, a national non-profit organization. He currently is writing a book on Mother Teresa that will be published by Simon & Schuster next year on the 25th anniversary of her death.)