I flicked a quarter to a guy on the street today.
A memory suddenly flashed in my mind – one of those indelible instants. Walking down some street in Cuenca, I saw a beggar sitting quietly by the side of the road. I can’t recall exactly, but he had some disabling deformity. Quietly is important – he seemed almost contented, completely at ease. He said nothing.
I had two dimes and a quarter in my pocket. I took the two dimes and pressed them into his hand.
That was the crucial moment. The way he received the coins from me was so special – it was so gentle and innocent, like an infant curling its fingers around your pinky, not knowing why – just something to grasp softly. It was as if the money melted away, and all that was left was the intention to give, just the idea of giving floating there in the air between us. Not even gratitude in his response – not even the seeking that is inherent in gratitude. Simply the acceptance of a flow. I have never had someone receive something from me like this.
Immediately I felt vexed. Why had I only given him the dimes, and not the quarter? What was the use of that lousy quarter to me anyway? Just what sort of miser was I? And then …
Just how do we decide who we give to, and how much? Why is it we give our friends much, those who typically are not lacking in material things, yet begrudge the needy of little? And a stranger can become a friend in an instant – one moment we feel we would never give him anything, and the next we are ready to invite him into our home! How can this change of heart be reconciled? Is there rhyme or reason to how these lines are drawn?
In Quito, I was walking down the street, and a lady was passing by. She had a scowl on her face, and was looking at nothing in particular. I thought, my, what a distasteful person! Yet for some reason I decided to smile at her. This was a little unusual in the sense that it is always easier to smile at someone who is already smiling, or who at least appears receptive.
Seeing my smile directed at her, suddenly, her expression completely changed! The scowl erased, her expression transformed with a broad, beaming smile! No trace of anything but joy?!
I was shocked! – I couldn’t believe it! – how utterly total the change was. I could not believe this was the same person who had just conveyed the essence of a dark thundercloud. Are we all like this – we teleport from this state of mind to that, this emotion to the other, this understanding of the world to that? Like a toad that jumps away every time you reach out to grab it – there is no pattern, all is changeable and uncertainty? The mysterious woman who calls Mr. Wind-Up Bird … her voice would change without warning …
An article in Harper’s a while back proposed an idea which I instantly saw truth in – Americans – and all people really – have an honest desire to do good, to enact philanthropy. But something in the fabric of society, in the confluence of expectations or whatever, is blocking us from being able to carry out our altruistic intent. It’s a double whammy – we feel crappy because our desire to be good is never fulfilled, only frustrated – and the good deeds themselves never get done, to the detriment of others and the environment.
Indeed, you can’t do anything right when you do good. It’s never good enough. When you do something nice, the feeling immediately gets diluted with the realization that you didn’t go as far as you could have – you could have been nicer, more generous of your time / energy / resources. The devilish seed has somehow been planted – you always second-guess anything that might be construed as good. Was it enough? Was it truly selfless? (It only has value if it was?) Doing good is a logical workout, and an exhausting one … to the point that it seems less tiresome to not even bother …
I would like to see things from the vantage point of a beggar. Not the angsty, unsettled beggar who is grasping and conniving, a “striving beggar”. Not that contradiction – how ridiculous it sounds! although we have all met them. But the beggar who has seen and accepted and merged with the vicissitudes of people, their moods, their motives, their emotions. Who has through this interactive experience come to understand changeability in the core of his being. Who completely accepts that sometimes people are, and sometimes people are not.
A beggar like this has seen many things, and can impart wisdom with a single, guileless brush of the hand. A beggar like this, in reality, is rich.