Love in a Time of Morphine

Mother Teresa was an apostle of love. Now, love is a quality consistently undervalued and misunderstood in a world swayed too much by secular economics and anti-poverty schemes. Poor Indians need more money. But they also need more love. We will need love, long after all Indians have been raised well above the poverty line. Indeed, at a deep level, poverty is a trifling ailment compared with lovelessness. Unless you grasp that, you cannot understand the core of what Mother Teresa stood for.

She stood for many other things too, and that led to confusion about and criticism of her aims. Secular critics like Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens denounced her as a charlatan. Even her fans were uneasy about some of her attitudes. At times she sounded like a missionary trying to convert non-Christians. Her virulent criticism of family planning seemed intellectually and morally wrong. She never seemed critical enough of poverty.

Her successor, Sister Nirmala, has made people even more uneasy. At her first press conference she is reported to have said that if poverty was eradicated ‘we will lose our jobs.’ She said ‘poverty is a gift of God,’ that the poor should not ‘moan and groan’ about it but ‘accept their poverty with contentment’ as something the Lord had given.

Many readers will find this outrageously callous. The more charitable will suggest that Sister Ninnala’s remarks were quoted out of context. But Mother Teresa in her time made similar remarks. She was horrified at being compared with famous social workers. She declared emphatically that she was not a social worker, she was helping the poor in order to save her soul and theirs.

This confused people. On the one hand she dedicated her life to the poor, on the other hand she seemed unfeeling about poverty. How could one explain this?

The answer is that she perceived the problems of the poor very differently from the secular anti-poverty brigade. The secular brigade saw poverty as an economic problem with class and caste overtones, and so aimed to raise living standards, institute anti-poverty schemes, and tackle class and caste barriers.

Mother Teresa’s approach was very different. She saw the poor as suffering from a lack of love rather than money. She was not particularly concerned about bridging the deficit of money: she sought to bridge the deficit of love. And so she gave solace and care, not money, to the sick and dying, to orphans and lepers.

Giving money to the poor is much easier than giving them love. We sacrifice very little of our living standards or time by donating cash to charities. But we make an incredibly hard sacrifice if we devote days of love and care to looking after dying strangers; or try all day to soothe cancer patients who are screaming in pain; or spend weeks washing the excreta and vomit off new-born orphans. Secular revolutionaries are particularly bad at this. They would much rather pick up a gun and kill class enemies (how thrilling!) than spend time trying to make lepers feel less unwanted (how boring!).

Other social activists want to go to organise villagers to demand their rights; to improve village sanitation and education; to build hospitals; to ensure that subsidies reach the poor. India needs such idealists. Yet the sacrifice they make is far less than that of the Missionaries of Charity. Setting up a village hand-pump gives an activist as much satisfaction as setting up a factory gives an industrialist. No comparable satisfaction flows from comforting a succession of terminally sick patients. I personally am incapable of devoting my life to such an unrewarding task, and so are most famous social activists. I salute the Missionaries of Charity as better human beings by far than us.

Mother Teresa’s attitude to the sick appalled many activists. In her homes, she did not give dying people drugs like morphine to kill their pain, as in modem hospitals. Instead she offered them the warmth of human comfort, along with rudimentary palliatives like aspirin. Critics accused her of keeping people in undeserved pain and poverty just to serve her personal agenda of saving souls.

Sunanda Datta-Ray summed up this view succinctly when he wrote ‘people want to live in comfort, not die in peace.’ He demanded greater scrutiny of the accounts of The Missionaries of Charity to see where funds came from (many dubious characters have been contributors) and how it was spent.

Now, I disagree with Mother Teresa when she said ‘It is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of poor people’. I agree with Datta-Ray that the poor should not suffer eternally to satisfy some Christian theory of global salvation. Yet I disagree totally when he suggests the Missionaries of Charity should henceforth use the donations that pour in to build hospitals where patients are given morphine rather than love.

Many secular do-gooders believe they have a monopoly of morality. So they want Mother Teresa to use the donations she gets to fulfill not her programme but the one do-gooders espouse. This is ridiculous. If Mother Teresa had been simply another social worker seeking to improve the health and income of the poor, she would never have attracted such global admiration, or the donations that go with it. The Datta-Rays fail to see how utterly pedestrian is their emphasis on morphine. Building hospitals is the task of the state, health companies and social activists. We do not need yet another outfit to do the job. But there is no state, health company or social activist that dispenses love. That is what makes Mother Teresa so special.

I agree with those who say love alone is not enough, and is not the most important need of the desperately poor. They need food, clothes, shelter, education. Tragically, the many institutions supposed to provide these basic needs have failed to do so. We must condemn that massive failure. But the answer cannot be to convert the Missionaries of Charity into a substitute for the failed state.

Mother Teresa set out to give the poor love, something nobody else was doing. It is silly to criticise her for not also giving them morphine, or jobs, or plots of land. This is like criticising Sachin Tendulkar for not doing enough for Indian hockey or kabaddi.

Dispensing morphine is relatively easy. Dispensing love to the sick and dying is extremely difficult, and requires a phenomenal inner drive. This drive in the case of Mother Teresa and her colleagues has been generated by religious fervour. This fervour has manifestations (like her attitudes to poverty or birth control) that dismay some secular activists. It does not at all dismay me. Although I am an atheist, I admire the religious passion that drove Mother Teresa to her mission of love, and I refuse to be distracted by some side-effects of that passion. Long after the hospital-builders are forgotten, she will be remembered as one of the greatest Indians of all time.

What do you think?