After I wrote my most recent piece about wandering around in the world of the homeless, called “Fixing The EGR“, some folks accused me of being compassionate. Funny, but I don’t see it that way at all, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that we grew up without much money. My “new” pair of boots one year came from the town dump. As I got older, at some point I noticed that other people had a lot more money than we did. I remember that when I asked my mom if we were poor, she said with some heat, “No, we’re not poor. Poor is a state of mind. We’re not poor at all. We’re just broke”.
Then she looked wistfully at the sky and said “I will admit, though, that we’ve been broke for some time now …”
Like most kids, I wanted to be a grownup. Want a laugh? Here was my biggest dream about no longer being a kid.
My dream was to be able to buy myself a bag of M&Ms, what in some countries are called Smarties.
But it wasn’t just buying the M&Ms. Oh, no, my childhood dreams went far beyond that.
My vision of being rich was to be able to buy a bag of M&Ms and not have to split them seven ways with my brothers and my cousins, because one bag was all we could afford … so we’d count them out to be exactly the same number for each of us, and then argue about the fate of the few M&Ms left over that couldn’t be divided evenly by seven.
Growing up “broke” like that gives one a clear view of what it’s like to not have much money. I see that as understanding, however, not as compassion,
The second reason is more curious. It’s about a realization I had one time in Africa.
In my thirties, I worked as a consultant for the US Peace Corps. In passing let me say that the Peace Corps is one of the finest foreign aid programs the US has ever had. I’d encourage anyone to become involved with it at any level. Me, I was never a Volunteer, but I worked as a consultant on a variety of short-term jobs.
Anyhow, my task on this trip back in the 1980s was to do a cost-benefit analysis of some projects done by Peace Corps Volunteers in various villages out in the African outback. My workmate and I were in Senegal, in yet another small village somewhere in the Sahel, that dry but barely livable region just south of the Sahara Desert.
It was a hot afternoon, and for some reason I had to walk the length of the village. I was contemplating the Noel Coward song about how only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, and since I clearly wasn’t English … above is one of the photos I took on that trip.
I’d walked about half-way through, assessing the village. I’ve walked through a lot of villages in the developing world. Like people, villages have distinct personalities. Some are full of life. Some are bitter and lonely. Looking back, I’d describe the personality of this one as “poor and friendly”. I’d been in “poor and unfriendly” villages before, no bueno, but this was the opposite. Nice folks.
There were a lot of people of all ages that didn’t seem to have much to do other than check me out. Streams and eddies of kids. Clumps of adults. Every door was open, everyone looking out at what was happening on the road through town, as is the custom in poor villages everywhere. The clothing for the kids was various scraps of cloth whose indeterminate ancestry was vaguely traceable to what passed for the clothing worn by the adults. Like most African villages the women were dressed clean, and proud … but their pretty dresses were cheap thin cloth of the poorest grade. And seeing three or four women wearing dresses of the same pattern, I knew that they couldn’t buy even a bolt of cheap cloth themselves, so they all went in together to buy a bolt, and each lady made herself a dress out of her share … put me in mind of a bag of M&Ms split seven ways.
For footwear, there were three choices. The majority footwear vote of the locals was for the candidate called “None”. It won by a landslide. The rest of the votes were divided between cheap imported plastic flip-flops and locally-made sandals. In very few cases did anyone have more than one pair. And if someone did have two pair, yeah, they might own two pair, but their cousin-brother wore the second best pair every day of the year except when the owner wanted them.
I remember the dust. I remember the sun. I remember my footsteps coming down in fine soft dust with that funny “puff” sound that thick dust makes. I remember the cloud of dust coming up from each step, and the dust sticking to my sweaty skin. I remember the sun, always the sun, the burning Sahel sun, and people wisely sitting in the shade.
And I remember the eyes—eyes looking back at me, lovely white eyes in gentle black faces, young mothers’ eyes in short shy glances, kids’ eyes sparkling with wonder, young men’s eyes taking my measure, old men watching under lowered lids, old women with soft sad eyes that had done far too much weeping and seen too many children die, all the eyes …
And at some point on my walk past all of those folks, I had a funny thought, a most curious thought, a thought I’d never had before.
I thought … I’ve won.
I looked around me. Here’s what I’d realized. Every person that I could see, every person looking at me and wondering about me, this is what I saw about them:
Every single thing that they wanted to have, every single thing that they wanted to be, the sum total of their craziest, wildest dreams … I had all of that. But not just all of that. What I had was way beyond that.
Here’s maybe the simplest example. I had my bush shoes on, my older comfortable ones that had lots of outback miles on them. They were far and away the nicest shoes in the whole village. No competition, nobody even close. My shoes alone made me rich in their eyes. They dreamed of having one glorious pair of shoes like mine in their short lives, just once, to walk in them and see what it felt like …
But what they didn’t conceive of was that back at the hotel I also had my good working shoes and a pair of dress shoes for nice occasions. And back at my house in the US I had work boots, and rain boots, hip-length sea boots from when I fished commercially, and my new bush shoes I was just breaking in, and snow boots, and sandals, and …
The same was true of every article of clothing I had on. I had shirts for all occasions and climates—dress shirts, t-shirts, wool shirts, warm shirts, work shirts, cool shirts … they had one tired shirt, bought from a 400-pound bale of used rejected shirts brought in by some trader from overseas, and maybe another shirt in reserve.
Same for everything I was wearing. Where they had one, I had twenty. And that was just what I was wearing.
I took stock. I had my youth and health. I had a college education. I had a good job, one of those things that are mythical in the world I was walking through. In a day I was making more cash than they saw in a year. I was being paid to get on jet planes and go to strange countries and meet fascinating new people.
But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more. Back home I had my gorgeous ex-fiancee. And I owned my own house. Not a big house, to be true … but then I built it myself with my own hands, and most importantly I owned it free and clear.
And I had a newish car, and an old pickup truck. My house was full of furniture. I had a couple of nice guitars. I had boxes and boxes of tools of all kinds—carpentry, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, concrete, everything I’d used to build and plumb and wire my house. I was partners in a 27′ salmon fishing boat. A somewhat old and tired boat, to be fair, but the fish didn’t care. I had a hard-to-get commercial salmon fishing permit.
Then there were the things I had that maybe they’d heard of but nobody they knew owned. Like say a bank account. Odds were very great that not one person among the dozens looking back at me as I walked that hot street had a bank account. Or a safe deposit box. A passport. Or how about say … credit? I could tap much more money than I had on hand.
I assure you, it was a strange feeling to be there with the sun beating down and me sweating like crazy and looking around and thinking that about half the people in the world live like this or worse … and I have everything they’ve ever dreamed of, everything they’ve wished for and a whole lot more, stuff that their dreams don’t even have room for.
I thought, I’ve done it! I’ve made it! I’ve won!
My life changed on that day. I was released from some kind of striving, some kind of grasping, some kind of push to be first, some desire to own more things and make more money …
The most unexpected change for me, however, was contemplating a totally new question, a question I’d never had to face.
What does a man do once he’s won?
Well … after some contemplation, my choice was to give it away. Not like “Sell everything and give the money to the poor”, that rarely ends well. My choice was give away my assistance, and my joy, and my abilities, and my music, and my support, and my knowledge to anybody who was interested.
And to return to where I started this tale, that is what impelled me to spend a day wandering in the squalid world of the homeless. It was a part of my repayment to a world that has given me everything the villagers ever dreamed of, a world that has provided more than anything I’d ever imagined of as a child.
So it was not compassion that lead me to spend another day talking to the homeless.
Instead, it was joy, joy that I have won in this life, a simple joy in having my very own bag of M&Ms that I don’t have to split seven ways, and coupled with that, an abiding passion to give that joy away as well as I know how.
My very best wishes to everyone,