At the bar I usually go to there is sometimes an old woman. She walks with the gait of one who has carried way too many of life’s weights, her face is wrinkled with a map of all she has gone through. She’s not exactly thin, I think stout would be the best adjective to describe her. Stout and stooped, holding on tenderly, shakingly to a walking stick, clothed in garments that have not been washed in a long, long time.
The thing is she’s homeless. She walks around with what I assume are all her possessions, the clothes she wraps around herself, a shawl that has seen better days and all the memories that follow her from moment to moment. It’s not my place to say she’s not happy right now, happiness comes from somewhere inside and not something outside , but I don’t think I would be wrong to assume she has had more of the things outside in her long, long life. On the way to the toilet I see her bundled and ready to sleep. Once in a long while she asks for money and I guiltily say I have none as I head back to the bar more intent on changing my consciousness than helping an old woman. Once in a while she engages someone in conversation, the person is usually uncomfortable, eager to go back to their comfortable life. I think she represents the extreme end of something we don’t want to be. This is the embodiment of what we think of us failure; walking around in our old age, sleeping outside bars with neither family nor money.
Yesterday I was walking towards the bar and I saw her lying down. This wasn’t her usual place and so I stopped for a while. She saw me and said “pati”(one half of the Swahili word for slippers, the other being…pati.) I looked around and saw her slipper lying some distance from her. I bent over and picked it up. Then I put it near her foot. I had done my good deed for the day and now I wanted to walk on. But she needed help putting it on and at this point the guilt I felt about not helping humanity in any way for such a long time was gnawing big bachelor-sock shaped holes in my gut. I helped her fit her foot in it and then I began to walk on.
But, here’s the thing she wanted to get up and she couldn’t. She seemed drunk and every effort she made left her back on her butt. “Nikusaidie.” “Asante.” I put out a hand and grabbed hers and tried to lift her up, this still wasn’t enough, she needed much more help than a person my age would. I bent down again and put my arms around her in order to help her up. Three thoughts flashed through my mind as I did this:
1. Her hand felt brittle as I tried to lift her, old people have weak bones what if it snapped off?
2. She could usually walk so maybe she was drunk and I remember reading a book by Dostoevsky where he talked about one Russian helping a drunk up with the fondness Russians save for one who is drunk.
3. I didn’t want my clothes to be dirty or smelly.
There was a bag on the floor and I held her steady as she bent to pick it up. She wanted to say something to me and so I leaned in close even though I didn’t want to and she said “shetan ashindwe” (may the devil be defeated.) then she said “God loves.” In my mind these sounded like blessings and I was touched by them. Everyone loves being given blessings and there’s something to getting them from an old woman. There’s something to getting them from an old woman who’s missing a lot of her teeth and is dressed in garments that look to be made of sackcloth. There’s something about being given a blessing by a woman who reminds me one of Macbeth’s witches or of old Nan from game of thrones.
For some reason it seemed more potent. Then she asked me to help her get her stick, I was still holding her around the waist and shoulder and there was no way I could get it without letting go of her so I dragged it with my feet towards us and when it was close enough she bent down to pick it up. Then she was stable. She held on to her walking stick the way we all hold on to life, unsure but not ready to let it go at any cost and then she gave me another blessing and walked away.
Just last week the Catholic Church chose a pope who took his name from St. Francis of Assisi. There’s a story that once he was riding round medieval Europe as he was wont to do in those medieval times and he saw a leper. He overcame his disgust and leapt from his horse and pressed money into the leper’s hands and was a changed man from that point. The pope said that a church would be spiritually poor if it cared more for its priests than for its people.
I think about charity sometimes, not the kind that St. Francis was capable of or the kind that Mother Theresa did. Those are the magical ones that I really don’t believe all human beings can do. It’s not possible for us to completely subsume our selfishness and think of others. Even as I was helping the old woman up I was thinking about how much I didn’t want to be there, I was trying to do the least possible in order to walk away and not feel so guilty. I may be wrong but I don’t think this necessarily makes me a bad person, it just makes me a person. It’s easy to help if we can feel clean about it afterwards, if the process of helping doesn’t at the end of the day hurt us or make us feel less in our own eyes. I know that I couldn’t press money into a leper’ hand for the simple reason that I don’t want to get leprosy and for the more complex reason of the association that we all have with dirt and the way it makes us feel, the more complex reason that it’s not just the leprosy as a condition but the whole package that is contagious. This seems to be how we act, or at least how I acted yesterday. Usually I don’t mind getting dirty, I sit on the floor, I drop my bag everywhere, I put my hand on dirty railings and buy fruit that’s not been washed and clean it on my shirt and eat it. But there was something about her dirt that I didn’t want to get to me.
Maybe I am a bad persona and I don’t know it, but I think I’m normal. No one is going to saint me of that I’m sure. And even though I came to realise that I have a lot of faith in humanity I don’t think I have a lot of faith in humans. Maybe it’s me skewing things to make myself better by thinking of others as worse but I really don’t believe that people go through charity without conflicting emotions, some of which I went through. When I meet someone on the street asking me for money, I don’t think of giving that money as a charitable act, I think of it as buying gratitude and peace of mind. As paying for the privilege of thinking of myself as a good person. So when I think the premium is good enough I do it and thinking this way it doesn’t matter that there’s a cartel of beggars or that the money won’t go to food. As long as it wasn’t charity but a service I am ok with whatever happens afterwards.
For a long, long time I was convinced that the only reason people did charitable acts was so they could feel good about themselves. I know this can’t be true and that it only happened that I thought this way because my un-saint mind was doing the thinking. There are people out there who work for nothing, not even gratitude. How else can anyone explain what comes of parenting, a job that can be ridiculously thankless.
Anyway I helped an old lady last night, it made me feel good and bad at the same time the fact of the act was good. The things I thought about as I did it, especially the fact that I really didn’t want to was not. A while back I always had a problem with selfless giving. The giving cheerfully that we are asked to do for church, I thought that it was better to give when you don’t want to. When that happens you are giving both the material and the sacrifice but maybe not. Maybe it was just my way of reasoning who I am, a grumpy giver then and a grumpy giver now. Though it’s difficult to imagine that anyone as complex as human beings are can be overcome with just one emotion at the same time. I remember reading somewhere that Mother Theresa asked people to give until it hurts, that it’s not a sacrifice unless you sacrifice.
George Sands once says that charity demeans those who receive it and hardens those who give it. I can see how this is true, I can also see how the opposite can be true too. That the act of giving can lower you in your own eyes, in the eyes of others. And that the act of receiving can also harden you depending on how it’s given and why.
I really have no conclusion to this, its possible that if I had just walked by her and not stopped to help I wouldn’t have given it another thought and that what I got for helping was not peace of mind but conflict about what it really means to help especially when we don’t want to.