Where We Begin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM     October 10, 2021

Recently, I reflected on fractures of both the physical and emotional kind. Most probably, we’ve all suffered at least one, perhaps both, types of the wounding of bone and spirit.

So of course I was drawn to a story about Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist. She devoted her early work and writing to expeditions to Samoa and New Guinea and published much of the research and insights she had gleaned from her twenty-four field trips to South Pacific peoples.

As a frequent lecturer, Dr. Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about the discovery of early signs of advancement and the development of crude tools, such as fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But Mead’s answer surprised her audience. She commented that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. A broken bone that had had the necessary time and care to recover.

Dr. Mead expanded on her answer by noting that, if this happened in the animal kingdom, an animal would most certainly die. With the excruciating pain of a broken leg, an animal can’t flee from danger, can’t walk to the river for a drink, can’t hunt for food. An injured animal is easy prey for hungry predators. There’s simply not enough time for an animal whose bone has been fractured to heal on its own.

But when a broken femur, the largest bone in the human body, has healed, that healing is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell. Someone has bound up the wound. Someone has carried the person to safety. Someone has tended the person through recovery. That tending is a sign that someone has not only noticed another’s suffering; someone has acted on what they’ve seen.

De. Mead’s observation that civilization begins when someone has helped another through difficulty has echoes of the parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?

In this powerful parable, others see the wounded one, but that’s all they do. A priest notices the person bleeding and lying in a heap on the other side of the road. The priest remains on his side of the street and keeps going. A Levite also observes the wounded one, but that’s all he does–observe, notice from the security of the familiar place where he stands, and then continues his journey without a second thought of the human suffering he’s just witnessed across the street. Neither of the observers moves from seeing to acting. Neither moves closer. Perhaps they don’t want to get involved. Perhaps they’re fearful of someone who seems unlike themselves and their life experience. Perhaps they’re too busy or don’t want to be delayed. Let’s face it, the neighbor Jesus describes rarely makes an appearance at a convenient time or in a familiar guise. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor notes, the Good Samaritan is the one who crosses the road to the other side where pain and anguish and need are so visible, the person who gets close up to human suffering.

Brett Jordan, Unsplash

And ultimately, it’s in the crossing over to the other side of the road where civilization starts and empathy and compassion are in evidence. Because the neighbor is often on the other side. Outside our comfort zone.  Beyond our familiar life experience. In the invitation to grow in spaciousness of heart. So Dr. Mead’s description of civilization and Jesus’ call for compassion are evidenced and embodied in those who give their lives over to the great act of courage: embracing the other. Bandaging the wounds of hatred and division. Pouring oil and wine and loving presence into the spaces of loneliness and separation and the longing for belonging.

Today and every day, as we approach the other side of the road ahead, may we not only notice but also move our love into action. May we find the courage to be neighbor in the fullest sense of the word.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One. Recall an experience where you noticed the pain or suffering of another.
What was your reaction to this need? Your response?
Ask the Holy One for the grace to recognize the divine in each person you encounter in the days ahead.

Featured Image:  Zac Durant, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer these upcoming events:

October 12-14:
Travel and a day of renewal for Caregivers (October 13) in the Diocese of Albany, NY. This has been re-scheduled several times since the pandemic began, so I’m especially delighted to be finally spending the day with these compassionate and caring people. Special thanks to Harley McDevitt, Director of Pastoral Care for the Diocese of Albany, NY and to her team for their patience and persistence in bringing this day together.

October 15-24:
Travel and a guided retreat for the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Pembroke, Canada. This is another event that has had its share of re-scheduling. Please pray with me that the border crossings will be uneventful in both directions! My deep thanks to Sisters Anne Taylor and Bonnie Zentner who have been unfailingly helpful and thoughtful with all the ups and downs of both the pandemic restrictions and the requirements for international travel at this time. I’m especially grateful to be spending time with this community related to the Grey Nuns, who at one time offered hospitality and shelter to our IHM foundress, Theresa Maxis, when she was exiled from our community. We have never forgotten that gracious gift!

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6 thoughts on “Where We Begin”

  1. Chris, this is a wonderful reflection. Thank you!
    Just this AM I read about Jane Goodall and parts of her life.. WOW!
    Her wisdom and experiences in life are so nurturing. I connect her
    thinking with the story of the Good Samaritan which you so beautifully
    shared with us.
    She shares this with us: “Do we focus on the possibility for good or the
    inevitability of evil?”
    Her stories are powerful as are yours Chris.
    Thank you again.

  2. Another powerful entry from you Sr. Chris. The graphic just blew me away and I am sharing with others.
    For the past several weeks, both my husband and I were ill – first him, and then later me. God timed it so one could nurture the other in due course. Thankful we were not just animals for fend for ourselves. It is so hard to watch a loved one suffer, and feel you can do so little –but to sit with him/her is a grace and a form of love and support. Thank you for continuing to nurture us all!

  3. Sr. Chris, thank you once again. I used your words in my morning meditation today, asking myself how I might be the best neighbor possible in this diverse and sometimes intimidating neighborhood that we have chosen to live and thrive in. It is so wonderful to be surrounded by the multicultural sights, sounds and smells of metro Atlanta living. Thanks for the food for thought you’ve offered in this piece on how to receive the gift of being here and how to give back accordingly.

  4. What a beautiful reflection! I always f eel, as the elder in our large family that I have to do the tending but yesterday my whole family rallied around me to pitch in and clean out 10 years of clutter and unnecessary “things”. They rented a dumpster and worked for 2 days to clear the deck for a move to a smaller living space where we can be closer to our children. It is a necessary move, because I will need their help in caring for my husband who suffered strokes and needs extra attention. A humbling experience to see everyone working and laughing together. I am so blessed.Your message really hit home.

  5. Timely as always dear Chris. My prayers go with you as you travel and share your kindness and wisdom with those in need. Cathy

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