One warm summer afternoon as I parked my car in a busy bazaar a man came up to me holding a wiper and a bucket of water. He was skinny and middle aged, with sunken cheekbones and thinning hair and grease-stained shalwar kameez. He asked if he could wash my car, to which I offhandedly agreed as I headed inside a bank to take care of some triviality. He got busy, humming to himself as he worked.
On my way out I handed him Rs. 100 as I sat in my car. He beamed and thanked me many times. He told me his daughter was sick and he needed Rs. 1,500 for her medication, and had been washing cars all day to make the money. He proudly said that since the morning he had already made Rs. 300.
There was something positive about his attitude, something noble, so I pulled out my wallet and held out Rs. 1,500. He slowly reached for it, his eyes wide, his mouth agape. He took the money and stared at it, and slowly dropped down on his haunches next to the open door of my car and began to cry, his head shaking in disbelief, the lightness of relief on the corners of his lips.
Rs. 1,500 had changed his life.
As I drove away under the steady wave of his prayers I couldn’t shake off this simple truth. Rs. 1,500 had changed his life. That’s a couple of McDonald’s meals for myself and a significant other, were she to exist. Or a splurge at a DVD rental store. Or designer sunglasses. Or a new pair of fancy headphones with extra bass. Or some protein powder. Or several packets of cigarettes. Or any manner of relatively upscale amenities which we don’t need yet continue convincing ourselves that we must have.
That amount of money had changed that guy’s life.
The other day I spotted an old lady sitting on the street outside a general store. A really old lady. She was frail and hunched over the sidewalk with her hands on her knees and a chaddar on her head, her face made up of a million ridges and wrinkles, her eyes half closed, her hands like crumpled paper. I went into a store to buy some nonsense, and on the way out offhandedly gave her Rs. 100 and walked to my car, opened the door, and sat inside.
Then something happened which surprised me. The lady drew from some ancient wellspring of energy and forced her aged body to stand up. She hobbled over to my car, the 100 rupees in her hand, and stood beside my window. Her face looked like tree bark, her lips had disappeared under the weight of time, her mouth now a mere slit. Her eyes though, her eyes were fiery and piercing and soulful and alive. She grabbed my arm and thanked me in an old, worn, yet proud Pathan voice. She doesn’t like to beg she said, it is the most degrading thing she has ever done. But her husband died yesterday, and her in-laws drove her out of the house, she has no one to take care of her, and she has to eat. Her voice cracked as she said this, but she did not cry. There was a strength in her, an ancient quality of power that made me feel like I had known this old woman my whole life. We talked a while longer, and she blessed me as my mother, and I her as her child, and we hugged each other and she kissed me on the forehead and I kissed her on her paper hands before I drove off. I’ll never forget that old woman, and I have never seen her again.
The lesson I learned from these two incidents, and others, is simple. I ain’t shit. Neither are my problems. There are better, more industrious, more hardworking, more noble people than me who through some tragic twist of fate have to suck up to the likes of me just to survive. And you. The odds are that if you are reading this, you are doing fine. Your basic needs have been taken care of, your problems are hardly life threatening, your life is relatively easy. Everything might not be perfect; maybe you can’t afford the new Xbox, or maybe your TV reception isn’t perfect, or maybe your parents don’t get you or your kids don’t appreciate you, or maybe you aren’t the most popular dude, or the prettiest girl, or the richest. But no matter how much we bitch and moan about how we hate life, I don’t have to wash cars to pay for my daughter’s medication. You don’t have to beg because everyone who took care of you either died or turned their back on you. Whether we choose to see it or not, the truth is that we are doing fine. The truth is that we are the lucky ones.
I don’t like giving beggars money, especially if they are able-bodied and could work for the same livelihood. But if a man cleans my car, or I spot a woman who reminds me of my mother sitting on the street, it would help to keep in mind the relative value of money.
The 1,000 rupees that I would pay at a fancy restaurant can save a child’s life.
The 100 rupees that I’d spend on soda water can buy an old woman food for a few days.
Giving a bit extra, rather than the bare minimum that you can get away with, can quite literally change someone’s life story. A friend once cynically but realistically pointed out that everything we do, including giving money to the destitute, is primarily a selfish act. We do it so we can feel better about ourselves, in a way we do it so we can alleviate the feeling of guilt at being so undeserving yet lucky. We do it purely for selfish reasons.
So be it. Perhaps it’s time to start being a bit more selfish then.