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Love and the Bitter Root

Usha Jesudasan

History has many stories where sacrifice made through love has brought healing and new life.

There was an old Indian woman who had children and many grand-children. She loved them all. She had seen many changes of season and many winters, but this winter seemed the worst in her memory. The first snows had come early and had fallen without a break. The hunters could not go out to hunt. The rivers with plentiful fish were frozen. The stores were low, for it had been a hard spring with a bad harvest. Now everyone was starving.

Finally the snows stopped and the ground began to thaw. The villagers breathed a sigh of relief. But then the snows came back again, with biting winds. Everything was solidly encased in ice once more. The people, wearied and exhausted, tried chopping through the ice and the hard ground. But they just could not do it anymore. Soon, people started dying, one by one. The old woman could bear it no longer, watching her own grandchildren and others dying of hunger. She said a silent goodbye to her family, and went away into the cold night. This way they would not have one more mouth to feed.

She went to a place she had loved as a girl. To a small stream that flowed near her village. She knelt down by the slippery banks and began to sing mournfully. She wept for her children and grandchildren, and the whole village that was suffering so badly. She poured her tears into the ground and cried out, “Great Spirit, hear my prayer. It is not right that the children die with their mothers and grandmothers and with their elders. It is not right that so many go hungry.”

The Great Spirit heard her prayer and had compassion and mercy on her. He sent the woman her spirit helper — a bright red bird. It swooped down and landed on a branch above the old woman’s head and sang at the top of its voice. The woman stopped from her prayers and listened. The little bird was speaking to her. It said, “Oh grandmother, the Great Spirit has heard your prayer and has felt the compassion you have for your people, and has seen your tears that have fallen onto the hard earth. Your tears of anguish have created a new plant. It will bloom now right in front of you. It will have petals that will open in the bright sunlight. The petals will be red, like my feathers and breast, and they will have silver and grey lines in them like your long hair grown and born of suffering and endurance.”

The old woman watched as the plant grew and bloomed in front of her and said, “ I have never seen a plant like this before. What do we do with it?”

The bird replied, “Dig them out by the roots. You can eat every part of the plant . Boil it, chew on it, cook it any way you want. It will taste bitter, but it will keep your village alive until the thaws come and other plants begin to grow. Call it anything you want. It will be enough to feed you all until Spring comes.” So the woman gathered the roots, digging them out one by one. She called the plant Bitter Root, gathered them in her skirt and found her way back to the village.

Her children were wailing in sorrow as they realized that their mother had given up warmth and a tiny portion of her food so that they could have more and live. What joy to see her not only alive, but bringing them something to eat. Since then the Bitter Root has been dug and eaten in many places, though it may be called by different names. And as people eat it they remember the deep love of one grandmother. How her sacrificial gesture brought life not only to herself, but to her whole tribe.

A lovely story , you might think, and smile — it is just a story of long ago from American Indian folklore. But just think…….is it just a story? Is the idea of sacrificial love old -fashioned for today’s ‘me only’, ‘me first’ generation? Can we also emulate the old lady’s gesture in some way? How does the idea of sacrifice work in day to day life today?

A young family was returning home from a Christmas shopping spree. Suddenly the little girl darted into the road and into the path of an oncoming bus. The father ran after her to pull her back and sadly both the child and the father were crushed to death. The young woman, pregnant at the time was devastated by her loss. In time, she had to get back to work. Crossing the street where her husband and child were killed was a daily nightmare for her. One day, a young doctor working at the same hospital saw her standing by the roadside, frozen with fear. So she took her hand and walked with her. The doctor realized what a struggle it was for this poor woman to do this every day. “What can I do to make her life easier?” she thought. She put herself in the woman’s position, and she knew what she had to do. But it meant rearranging her carefully planned minute to minute morning routine. Could she do it? Her heart would not let her rest till she made her decision. She went to this woman’s house every morning to accompany her and give her the courage needed to cross that road. She did this until the child was born.

The other workers at the hospital were touched by the love and compassion the doctor showed this young woman. Was there any way that they as a community could show her that they too cared for her? They all got together and asked the hospital administrator to give the young woman a house on the campus. The administrator though sympathetic, was reluctant to break rules as the woman was not eligible for housing within the campus. The workers persisted. They decided to sacrifice something as a working community — they promised that they would not demand the same privilege of housing for themselves. Neither would they use this as a precedent in the future. Their love and sacrifice worked a small miracle. The woman, and later her baby found security, friendship and healing by this sacrifice.

Most of us have experienced acts of selfless sacrifice and been deeply grateful for it. But for whom would we be willing to give up time, energy, money and carefully laid out plans? What would we need to sacrifice as individuals or communities to help those around us experience a sense of well-being and wholeness?

About the Author:

Usha Jesudasan’s writing career has spanned over four decades. Her books ‘I Will Lie Down In peace’ and ‘Two Journeys’ are autobiographical and deal with issues of faith and healing while facing illness and death. She has worked for the World Council of Churches as a Consultant on issues of Faith Healing and Peace, co authoring two pictoral workbooks for churches and study groups — PAIN, REMEMBRANCE, HEALING and HEALING AS EMPOWERMENT. Usha is co — author of the Peace and Value Education series Living In Harmony. She also works with widows, street and runaway children at the grassroots level. She writes frequently for The Hindu and other newspapers.




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