Many people have no trouble giving, but receiving runs across the grain. Sometimes it’s a matter of pride. The less one has, if one is a proud person, the less one feels inclined to accept help or loans or gifts if things are going badly. And being forced to accept help because otherwise starvation looms (or that is the perception in the moment), the ego takes some hard knocks during the capitulation but in that situation all kinds of amazing insights can happen. Because then something cracks and light can enter. And as my tai chi teacher, Rita Baptista said: ‘When you fall into the ditch, don’t forget to gather the roses that grow there.’
There is an airy acceptance of help or gifts or goods among people who are equally well-off, or when the receiver is slightly wealthier than the giver. There is something rather tragic in assuming the person with less toys is too poor to give, and batting the proffered gift away with – ‘Oh no, you needn’t, please don’t, I couldn’t possibly accept that… ‘
And then there is the compassion of the poor for the very poor, when there is nothing to give when the need is great, and then the anguish is terrible. I’m stumbling among these different thoughts here, with words that are too many and inadequate to come to a neat conclusion (if there is one) but Kahlil Gibran sparked it all off recently as only a great poet can, succinctly and elegantly with these words:
‘For when you strive for gain you are but a root that clings to the earth and sucks at her breast. Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, ‘Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance’.
For to the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need to the root.’
(And his next words seem to be inserted especially for me, while I’m struggling to articulate something cohesive here…)
‘You are good when you are fully awake in your speech. Yet you are not evil when you sleep while your tongue staggers without purpose.
And even stumbling speech may strengthen a weak tongue.
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps. Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping. Even those who limp go not backward. But you who are strong and swift, see that you do not limp before the lame, deeming it kindness.’
Last year and the year before have been really tough on most of us. It was interesting going to the depths of this human experience of doing without not only luxuries, but often everyday necessities and basics. What was interesting was a thought that came up after my car had to be sold because I couldn’t manage the repairs. For quite a while I was on foot, and joined the pedestrians thronging the pavements, walking everywhere and carrying grocery bags long distances. I thought- ‘Now I’m among the People. I can look them in the eye and not feel guilty for having a car; we are all equal in the toiling up the hill and in the heat.’
I believe this ‘limping before the lame and deeming it kindness’ (although the ‘limp’ was real) is called ‘success anorexia’. Unless everyone else has (a car or whatever) too, you can’t have it. This neurosis may have come from being the older sister to three siblings. I had to learn to share rather soon in life, and repeatedly. It became a habit and then a compulsion. As I saw it, anything I received I had to resign myself to sharing, in order to be ‘good’. To own was to be selfish. Well that was my take on it – not logical, but emotions stick around longer than thoughts and ideas.
But the muggers who attacked me on the 3rd March at around 3 pm didn’t see me as One of the People. There was a sharp tap on my shoulder, a relentless wrenching at my handbag strap, and a long, not very shiny knife. Back and forth, here and there, up and down, twist and turn. They gave up after about 10? 15? seconds of my loud, relentless screaming and resolute clinging to my little handbag. Nothing on earth could have induced me to let go. I escaped with a tiny nick on my hand and a cut handbag strap but with my handbag intact. I almost danced down the road and couldn’t stop grinning. The People around me were happy with me, some were angry that this was happening in broad daylight. Everyone had been too shocked to do anything but stand there.
The spot where I was attacked lay between a smallholding I’d just moved to, and the shopping centre. Since my white skin would always separate me from the People, there was nothing for it but to give up and buy a motorbike. I’m allowed to have a bike, according to the law of Thou Shalt Not Own too Much. But this brings me back to the original thoughts on giving and receiving. When there is such a gap in this country between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ to begin with, and the recession has increased the gap to a yawning abyss, even really wealthy people are making a few attempts not to flaunt their acquisitions quite so much in recent times. What is enough? What is too much? When are you giving or sharing enough?
Materially wealthy people provide jobs and not only directly to people they employ, but also in the many industries they support when they take out their wallets. One’s poverty serves nobody at all. But according to Kiki Theo, who advises people on wealth-building, one can’t make money until one has learned to accept. This was a big breakthrough for me and the past two years have taught me eventually to accept kindnesses big (I mean really big) and small (small to them) from all kinds of people.
I guess the most moving kindness was that of a petrol attendant, when I put in five Rands’ worth of petrol to get myself home one dark night. He smiled incredulously. ‘No Madam, you need more than that.’
‘Well, that’s all I have.’
He dug into his pocket and said ‘This is from my tips. Let me give you R10 for more petrol.’ I should have accepted it, but I couldn’t. My ego was still strong, and I declined, trying hard not to weep.
‘Well’, he said – ‘you must know, that if you’re ever in trouble, here at Engen you’ve got a friend.’
At that moment, the world I live in became a warmer and happier place. I have felt cared-for and safer because of countless little and large incidents in these uh…. interesting times and I wouldn’t change anything about the last two years. I’ve learned who my friends are, and that behind many smiles there’s incredible courage.
Also, mine is not the only cracking ego. As the recession bites, more and more people are becoming real and open about how things are, and dropping their masks.
When we emerge from this ditch, we will have a lot of roses, but perhaps we can enjoy their fragrance right now.