Why do I continue living in India year after year? There are practical reasons, of course, but there are other reasons too. Just last week, for example, I saw a camel walking down the road amidst busy traffic. One doesn’t see that sight on the street every day! It’s not exactly common here either, but then again, it’s not something that could never happen.
Though I’ve lived here for a number of years now, a recent trip to Old Delhi, like all trips to Old Delhi, opened my eyes once again to entirely other ways of being and living that remain a wonder even after seeing them many times. There is the wonder of wire, for example, and how the city caries on though wires are tied in Gorgonian knots most anywhere you choose to look up–yet it does, and that’s amazing. Monkeys climb around the neighborhood balconies, monkeys occasionally appear on the school roof, and climb along the wires, moving from building to building. People pull and push loads so large it seems it would be impossible for the driver to navigate. On the side of the street amidst busy traffic you might see someone getting his ear cleaned, a person taking a nap or quietly reading. Everywhere on the city streets people are engaged in activity–sweeping, selling, driving, sleeping, eating. A whole world that holds a thousand stories is laid before your eyes–narratives with intricacies and ways of being that remain a mystery to me, even though I view the story in process before my eyes.
It’s true that India is full of many wonders but on the other hand, it’s also true that living in India with its enormous population, pollution and poverty constantly poses questions I don’t have answers for, this is one of the benefits of continuing to live here. It confronts me every day with challenges to the heart, mind and body. How do you negotiate daily through thick traffic? How do you breathe through months of smoke and pollution where the particulate matter in the air consistently ranges in the dangerous zone? How do you look at beggars on the street and who come to your door year after year and keep your heart open without looking away when there seems to be no end to their ongoing grief and pain? Even the dogs on the street carry in their bodies the imprint of loss and neglect. Look at their eyes and you can read their need. It is good to live with these questions, and to ponder them. They don’t go away, and won’t depart though I someday will. They make me ask questions about what is important in how I live, and what I’m doing with my life that matters–what are we doing together with the incredible gift of life on this earth. How are we using what we’ve been given for the good of all, including the earth itself?
When we see need in those around us, and of the earth around us, we can see the parts of ourselves that are lost, alone, and broken, and feel compassion. We can become more aware of our own interdependence on others. None of us are truly self-sufficient. Henri Nouwen says, “We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish.” Draw near, look the need in the eye. So often we don’t want to look at poverty in the eye. It’s too painful. We may not be able to fix the world with its pain and short comings. Still, we can reach out silently in our heart, with a “hello” of recognition. We can give a small offering of food. We can practice being present.
The traditional story “Loosening the Stopper,” from the Hassidic Jews of Poland describes a man who had a lot of money and gave generously to the poor. One day, however, the man was in conversation with fellow businessmen when a beggar approached him asking for money. The man didn’t want to interrupt his conversation to get his purse, so simply gave the beggar the loose change he had. The beggar threw the coin at the wealthy man, hitting him in the face, declaring it was an insult since he could give so much more and why didn’t he? The wealthy man decided that from then on he was going to give only a half-penny to anyone. When two rabbis approach him later asking for a donation, they agree to be grateful for whatever was given them that day. The wealthy man gave his half penny, and the rabbis thanked the man for his generosity. Later, the wealthy man returned and gave them much more money, again returning to giving generously.
The story concludes with one rabbi explaining to the other what it was that opened the wealthy man’s generosity. “It is also said that each step upward leads to another. Once we accepted his half-penny, we loosened the stopper on his generosity. Each gift he gave made the next one possible. Now, our willingness to receive has restored him to his goodness.” For those of us debating what to give, to whom and how, the wisdom in this story is to start somewhere. Give something. It is better to open up the stopper on your compassion than to go a lifetime holding back.