Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Small Act of Unconditional Kindness


On Wednesday evening I stopped by the local Safeway Supermarket to see if I could pick up some fresh flowers for the back lounge at home. Walking through the carpark, I noticed a small old man sitting alone on the rail by the wall of the supermarket watching the evening shoppers rushing by. He looked as if he was waiting for someone, or could be just idling away his time. I nodded and smiled at him as I approached, and he nodded and smiled back. I could smell the mixture of alcohol and cigar around him as I walked past. A can of beer sat on the ground next to his right foot. I didn't pay much attention and headed towards the supermarket. I checked through the flowers section from outside the window, then decided to step inside to take a closer look. The flowers turned out to be either too expensive or had gone past their prime, so I thought I would go over to the arcade on the other side of the carpark to see if I could find some in the fruits and veges shop that I had frequented two weeks before.

The old man was still sitting on the same spot. Again we smiled at each other. As I was just about to walk past him he suddenly spoke to me. I stopped and listened. He asked if I was a student. I smiled and replied that I wasn't. He then looked at me and asked if I could spare a dollar. Without hesitation, I reached into my pocket, brought out a dollar and gave it to him. He smiled broadly and thanked me for the money. Looking at his twinkling eyes I was somehow inexplicably moved. I reached over and gave his right cheek a couple of gentle pats before leaving. About half way to the arcade, I was suddenly hit by this very warm and fuzzy feeling that enveloped me. My steps faltered for a brief moment while the sensation washed over me. I slowed down slightly to regain my balance, but I didn't pause or look back. I got to the shop, selected two bunches of lilies, and headed towards the nearby restaurant to pick up some takeway. By the time I got back to the carpark some half an hour later, the old man was nowhere in sight. It wasn’t until the next day that the little incidence came back to me while I was sitting on a park bench enjoying my morning break from work.

I have seen a fair share of beggars in my life time. When I was a kid, around five or six, there were regular door to door beggars who came by every morning. I would take a few cents from dad’s draw and gave to them, or rushed to the back and brought out a small can of uncooked rice and poured it into their sags. Dad never said anything about what I did. And there were others that begged in the “food courts” or restaurants as well. I guess most of us would feel guilty to display our gluttony when someone less fortunate stared down at us with a hungry look on his face. There were women with four or five kids on tow going around begging from table to table. The kids were usually less than five or six years old. Not only they would hope to get some tokens from you, they would also clean up what were edible on the table as soon as you stood up and left. The less intrusive ones would set up their places in thoroughfares. Some would lay a piece of cloth or cardboard with writings outlining their misfortunes or ill health and asked to be helped. Others would just simply sit there with their hands outstretched each time someone walked by.

The beggars came in all sizes, races, and ages, and each had his or her distinctive “style” of begging. I was told by well-meaning folks that some were “professional” and made a good living out of begging, although I doubted if they could make enough in a day to warrant the use of the words “good living” to describe their situation. I have also heard of tales of eccentric rich people who go around begging in the day, and go back to their mansions at night to feast and rest, or the beggars who died leaving thousands of dollars in their bags.

I have not begged in the streets to make a living just yet, so I really can’t say how I would feel had I been in their shoes, but I can imagine. Personally, I would have to swallow my pride real hard to do what they were doing. It would take enormous courage and humility for me to ask for a token from my fellow strangers and face the embarrassment, disappointment and frustration when being rejected disdainfully. But most of all, I doubt if I could face the disgust with which some of the fellow strangers have reacted.

Beggars show a remarkable resilience in surviving the most adverse condition. They have come to rely on the compassion of their fellow strangers to help them through each day. A lesser person might find the condition so intolerable that it would be simpler to end it all. In this regard, begging does not demean human spirit; failure to help is, afterall, the sanctity of life covers all creatures great and small.

I am in no position to tell the beggars what they should do with their live. Each has his own free will and reason to do what he chooses to do. The token I give has no string attached; it’s only a small act of unconditional kindness. I don’t know if my giving a token would encourage them to continue their way, but I would hope that those who are still capable would someday choose another path and live differently. As for those who are incapacitated or less fortunate, all I can do is help. Had they been given the same opportunities to start in life as you and I have, they just might have lived differently now, as you and I do.

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