Take Only What You Need

This has been another week marked by the strange reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve continued to face the new ‘normal’ of sheltering-in-place while trying to absorb the shock of how quickly life can change. I have to limit how much I watch the news on television or listen to podcasts or radio shows that overwhelm me.

But I did read an editorial by Bill Fine, the president and general manager of an ABC news affiliate in Boston. The title grabbed my attention: “Hoarding during a Worldwide Pandemic.” In the article, he considers why people have responded by wiping the shelves clean of toilet paper. He looks at toilet paper as a symbol of all the other things that people are gathering up at a time of scarcity and feeling scared, a human response that is perceived as a way to take care of our own.

Some of our local stores have limited how many of these items you can buy–but not all have. The grocery where I shop had empty shelves of toilet paper and sanitizing wipes. Only last week did I find chicken and ground beef–since the weeks before those bins were completely cleared.

Bill Fine brings the editorial to a close by pointing to the future when we’ll analyze our COVID-19 response and then adds a straight forward directive for all of us now:

When the crisis has passed, there will be time to take a hard look at why America was not better prepared for a pandemic that was not merely envisioned but expected. For now, let’s think “herd mentality” by building up a community-wide sense of social responsibility in a crisis. We’re in this together. Buy what you need; but leave the rest for others! 

Bill Fine, WCBV5 abc

I think about this and it reminds me of a similar directive I received years ago under very different circumstances.

In 2008, I traveled with a local church to work at a mission in a mountain village in Haiti. I, along with the other woman in our group who was also a nurse, helped staff the medical clinic and the six men built houses and made repairs on the mission school.


Painting by Haitian artist who sold her wares at the airstrip.

On our first night, after a very long and tiring trip to our remote destination, we gathered around the table of the founding mother’s home where we would have all our meals. Before the grace was said, our leader, Gene instructed us.

“I want you to take what you need but don’t put on your plate more than you’ll eat. The ladies who prepared your food will eat what is left over.”

I thought about that as I was passed the bowls of beans and rice, fresh mango, and stewed cashews and wondered what they ate when no mission groups were there for the week. The women went back and forth from the kitchen filling the bowls of food and quietly serving us.

The next morning, I awoke in the dormitory that was next to the founding mother’s house, to the sound of the women singing hymns and spiritual songs. We were told they did this every morning, rising before dawn and gathering for prayer and singing before they prepared our food. Later, when we sat down to pancakes slathered with peanut butter and syrup, I remembered what Gene had told us the night before.

If I eat less, they can eat more, I thought as I resisted a second helping.

And at every meal, that thought was ever before me. Working in the clinic and going out in the village, I saw the Haitians who were very thin and malnourished. They were such a contrast to most Americans.


My essay, “If We Eat Less, They Can Eat More” was published in this anthology in 2010

Now, twelve years later, going through this crisis of a global pandemic, I think of these directives to take only what you need. I consider the food in my refrigerator and pantry and think to myself, How much is enough? With the sheltering-at-home directive, I  limit my grocery shopping to once a week and go during the ‘Senior Hour’ from 6:00 – 7:00 a.m. I’m more intentional now in the grocery, carrying a well-considered list of what  I must have, and quickly making my way through the store, careful to keep my social distance.

But I’ve also seen the news with images of cars lined up at food pantries for those out of work or out of funds. Simply shopping for my needs is not enough at a time like this– or maybe ever. This leaves me with questions:

What is it that I really need whether groceries or other goods? What is essential for my health and happiness? What is essential for others’ health and happiness?

I confess that I’ve not pondered these questions often enough and I’ve certainly been sporadic in my response to others’ needs. I’ve been so focused on myself, so self-absorbed in what I’ve been dealing with in my personal life over the past months, that I’ve not been as aware of others; that is until this pandemic has forced its heart-wrenching stories into our daily lives.

I’ve heard the expression that “Everything is of the same piece.” All things are related. This week I’ve been cleaning out my house and considering what to carry forward as I move to a smaller space. I look at each item and think about its value; Is it still useful? Does it bring joy? Does it still have meaning? For me this relates to the question of what is essential. It’s a thoughtful and tiring process of going through– and it is necessary.

As I’m cleaning out my house where I’m sheltering-in-place, amidst the news of the pandemic, I look at how to take only what I need. Moving forward, I want to have a more consistent lifestyle that considers what others’ need and personally respond in the way that I’m called.

I pray that God will help all of us to find ways to live more intentionally in our world, supporting one another in our communities and across the globe, as we step into a changed world after this pandemic.


Painting by our interpreter, Johnson.

How About You?

How are you dealing with taking what you need?

What are you learning during this pandemic?

How do you want this time to change how you move forward?

4 thoughts on “Take Only What You Need

  1. The Haiti Mission Trip you went on with our church
    Yates Baptist of Durham was truly a good comparison with our unusual situation today. For years I have believed that other nations see the US as taking far more than their share.


    • Hey Harriet,
      I appreciated your support and the way that the Yates mission team welcomed me as one of their own. Yes, I think that we in the US can be so focused on ourselves, and sometimes, we seem to act like we’re superior to people from other countries– especially poor countries like Haiti. But I know that God sees us equally and it’s just by chance that I was born into a rich country and the Haitian was born into a poor country. And yet, the joy of spirit I saw there I have not alway seen here.


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