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Time to Donate to the Food Bank

SamaritanThe law imposes on each of us a duty of care. But to whom do we owe this duty? In 1932 Lord Atkin described it this way in Donoghue v. Stevenson:

The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law… You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.

This has come to be called the “neighbour principle”.

Sometimes we do not know who our neighbour is, until we need one.

In October 1964, I had a few neighbours: the Hagbergs, the Brailands, the Rules, the Lawlesses. They were useful for cookies, playmates and toilet privileges.  There were seven of us Harding kids: Dave (14), Mike (12), Pat (10), Dan (8), Steve (6), me (4), and Teresa (3).

Monday, October 5th 1964 is the day I learned whose neighbour I was.

Dad is at work. My brothers David and Mike are at school. Mother is home with the rest of us: Pat and Dan are sick and home from school; Steve, Teresa and I are too young for school. After breakfast, the kids are playing in the house.

About 10:00 o’clock, Pat sees smoke coming from the basement. He runs to tell Mom. The telephone doesn’t work – have the lines melted? Pat runs to a neighbour’s to use their phone. Nobody is home.

Mom tries to round up the other four children. Where’s Teresa? Is she outside? Is she in the basement?   The basement is full of smoke and flames – no one can get in.

The Fire Department is slow in answering. Eventually, men and equipment arrive. All they can do is keep the fire from spreading to adjacent houses. They search the house six times for Teresa. They risk their lives without proper oxygen equipment.  As the floors above collapse, their only exit is past a glowing-hot oil tank.

Finally, Teresa is found. She has asphyxiated. They rush her to hospital. They try to revive her, but it is no use. She’s gone. Everything is destroyed. Our little princess. Our belongings. Our lives.

Friends and strangers come to help us. The help of friends is generous, but in a sense, expected. That’s what friends do. The help of strangers is a wholly different thing. Strangers take pity on us. The newspapers appeal for donations. Many charities came to our aid: giving clothing, furniture and money. Cans appear on shop counters: “Give to the Harding Fund”. Strangers take us in, feed us, clothe us, house us, comfort us.

Mom and Dad spend a year planning and working towards re-building. Local businesses donate or cut their rates on material and work for the new house. Finally, we move into our new home. Everything’s going to be ok, right?

No.

The death of a child is like an earthquake: the initial devastation is just half the damage. It also weakens the fabric of structures, creates hidden cracks which need only a tremble to cause further collapse. Marriages rarely survive the death of a child.  Our parents separate.

Now, we’re poor. And we feel poor. Six boys, with our mother. We boys learn new things:

  • How “poverty” can also mean “despair”;
  • That crumpled newspaper is better insulation than flat sheets inside a thin jacket in winter;
  • To raid cornfields at night in the summer;
  • To make dinner for seven for less than a dollar;
  • Which stores and restaurants usually throw away good stuff – and when to go there so as not to be seen by people who know us;
  • And that you must never, never tell anyone how poor you are,
  • Because shame is worse than hunger or cold.

There was no Food Bank when I was a child. The view then was that people were poor because they deserved to be. The poor were lazy. The poor were drunkards or druggies. The poor lacked thrift. The poor were immoral.

Over the years, many people give us help. Each one makes a difference to our lives. A benefactor pays for one boy to attend a prestigious private school through grade 12. The nuns let four of us attend elementary school for free. From time to time, milk truck drivers and bread men drop off just-expired food. Santas Anonymous and the Empty Stocking Fund provide most of our presents for years and years. Teachers take the time to challenge and direct troubled boys. The Legion provides university scholarships. A Naval chaplain teaches us that goodness is shown not by what we say, but by what we do and what we are.

And, who are these people? Neighbours. Neighbours, most of whom I never met. Neighbours, who when confronted by a victim of circumstance, did not pass by, pretending they could not see. Neighbours, who when confronted by suffering, did not say: “But I do not know this one, he is a stranger to me”. Neighbours whose only reward was in the giving.

We lawyers say that there is no legal duty to be a rescuer. How odd. The lesson from which we take our “neighbour principle” is that great story of a reviled Samaritan, a foreigner, a stranger, who rescues a victim of robbery. The lesson tells us that the stranger becomes a neighbour because he acts charitably. The lesson tells us that each of us is the neighbour to every person who is in need. Just as every person is a neighbour to us, when we are in need.

Nowhere in that lesson is the victim blamed:

  • He should get a job.
  • Don’t give him money, he’ll spend it on drugs.
  • People like him deserve what they get.

In my life, I have learned these lessons:

  • No one chooses to be poor.
  • No one goes hungry because they are lazy.
  • No child is unworthy of help and kindness.
  • No one has so little that they can not give.
  • No one has so much that they do not need.

So, I end with these questions:

  • If your neighbour sees you in need – and he shields his eyes and crosses the street to avoid you – will you praise him, and say: “he has no duty to rescue me”?
  • Or, when your neighbour comes to your aid, will you thank him?
  • When you see your neighbour in need – will you shield your eyes and cross the street to avoid him?
  • Whose neighbour are you?

Feed the Food Bank. Be a neighbour.