I, as have you most likely, wonder on a daily basis just who the heck I am. I know who I want to be, I know what I’d like to be and I know who I should be. But am I any of the above?
I’m a sap, that’s for certain.
No, really, my biggest fault (or virtue, take it as you may) is that I am partial to human suffering. I believe that is a trait many of us share within the Truth, but I am especially cursed by it, for it has made me who I am, brought me into ASL, etc.
I shall elaborate.
The other day I watched the espionage-thriller The Constant Gardener, a movie based on a novel by my fav writer John le Carre. The movie is very graphic in the depiction of poverty and suffering in its African setting. Not so much in a “Oh my, those poor people!” kind of a context, but rather more like “Look! Let’s do something about it!” — Which is the subject of the film, in a nutshell.
And that is the story of my life. I hate to see people suffer… more so if there is nothing I can do about it. It gives me the chills, my stomach cramps up and tears well up. Not in sadness. In anger.
This feeling harks back to my first encounter with poverty in the mid 80s. I was a joyful intellectual of 7 and thrilled to visit ‘America’ for the first time with my family. We toured much of both coasts, stopped by Disney World, leaped over to NYC, then across to San Diego to see the zoo and met a few friends. All things a child should remember forever.
Yet I don’t.
My memory leaves me blank.
Except for a visit to a little town called Tijuana.
I don’t remember much of the city. But I do remember the people. I recall the incongruous contrasts: a boy my own age asked me in Spanish “do you also speak English or do you only speak Tijuana?” A family in nearby San Diego we stayed with looked wide-eyed at my parents for speaking Spanish with me and my brother instead of our native German: “Why do you speak Spanish with them?” — as if Spanish was a four-letter word.
But my fondest and at the same time most dreaded memory was of an old woman sitting on a street corner with a baby in her arms, extending her begging hand towards me as I passed.
Me. A 7 year old wisecrack.
After a few paces I stopped. My brother (4 at the time) heeled and gazed at me. I couldn’t just let her sit there. At the same time I could not walk back: some type of fear had gripped me. Maybe it was shame. My wallet was at the time in a terrible hungry condition (well, that hasn’t really changed, come to think of it) and I had but a tiny coin of the lowest value. Demonstratively I emptied the wallet until I found this one sorry coin and handed it to my brother to give it to her. He waddled over to her, plunked the coin in her hand and returned. I knew it was worth nothing. I knew it was a joke. But it was all I had.
The old woman, having observed me this whole time, lifted her arthritic hand and waved: “Gracias.”
I could have choked up right there.
I don’t remember Mickey Mouse hugging me in D World. I don’t remember the giraffe in the San Diego Zoo licking my head with its sandpaper tongue.
But I remember and old woman thanking me for giving her a coin of no value.
Was it this encounter that causes me to vote with my feet for the rest of my life? Perhaps. I have now learned to cope with poverty, but every time I pass a woman with a baby in her arms begging, the feelings return and I’d like to pull out a wad of bills and right the wrongs.
Or, as did Ralph Fiennes’ character in The Constant Gardener, grab the pilot of the evacuation plane and try to bribe him to “save them! If we don’t they will die!” (here is the scene)
But, as did Fiennes in said movie, I would fail miserably.
I still don’t know who I am. I don’t know if I ever will (hey, that kinda makes me mysterious, don’t it?).
But I do know one thing.
Thank God I know the Truth.
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