I had just finished tipping the two housekeepers in the hotel. It wasn’t a great deal of money to me, or to them either, I imagine, but I usually try to do something to express my appreciation. It was a simple gesture. Nothing novel about it.
I was walking to a market two blocks away in the center of Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu, to buy bottled water. I was about to cross a busy street when I noticed an obviously destitute Nepali woman coming toward me, carrying a small child no more than a year old. The child had a full leg cast. I felt a jolt of empathy. This woman in her dirty sari must have noticed my reaction. Our eyes met as she came closer and told me she did not want money. She needed milk. She led me right across the street into the market where she showed me exactly what she wanted: powdered milk.
She chose the large size, which cost almost 2000 NRs (about $20). I chose the small size, about half that. As I walked to the front, I noticed she was pregnant. I don’t know what possessed me to presume any intimacy, but I looked at her again and silently touched her belly.
I turned, paid the cashier, handed her the milk and went on my way.
There are large numbers of poor people in Kathmandu, reflecting a general poverty. But there don’t seem to be large numbers of beggars. I have noticed the truly destitute and the disabled are around religious sites, places where tourists are likely to be and where visiting Nepalis are more likely to feel generous.
I am occasionally accosted on the streets of Thamel—well, that’s not true–I am always accosted on the streets of Thamel, but most of those who want my attention are at least selling something. Very few only want money.
I’m not sure exactly what it takes for me to respond. There is no formula. Every situation has a different feel, a different instant of decision. I am often pre-occupied with something else as I walk, too distracted by a purpose to really see, to be open or available. There are more factors than that, but it all happens very quickly. Some days I’m just not interested.
There was an old woman in Chiang Mai that I used to see in one of the neighborhoods I frequented. I gave her money once. After that, she seemed to reappear almost every time I returned. Seeing her repeatedly, I was giving her increasing amounts of money. There is no rational explanation for any of this. Nor do I need one.
I drop 20, 30, maybe 50 rupees into the bowls around the temples in Kathmandu. But today I dropped nearly $10 without batting an eye. Maybe I’ve never done that. I’ve certainly never done that here. I’m probably not unique in terms of my own cues, hooks or personal considerations in these circumstances. Maybe it was the therapist in me–seeing the cast on that child’s leg—a vestige of an occupation that I’ve left behind, but not a view. I will say that realizing she was pregnant reinforced my original motivation. It was all very quick, but it was still a choice to allow myself to be carried along.
As I walked back toward my hotel holding my water, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of extreme sadness coupled with utter helplessness. It was a moment of despair—for the reality of the suffering I had just encountered, coupled with knowing that whatever I had just done, it solved nothing. It amounted to nothing. I had no regret, but I also felt no satisfaction whatsoever, no sense of merit about it.
Viewing this event through the cosmology of this part of the world, through the lens of beginning-less time and an infinite number of lifetimes, the inconceivably long trajectory of a soul journey, how could this have meant anything—except maybe to me? I don’t know what it meant to her. It was two kilos of powdered milk. How long does that last? What was that child’s actual condition? What is the second child being born into? Are there more? By what conception could this act possibly be multiplied? It was a mere drop in a vast well of suffering.
None of these questions or feelings is new. The total picture of poverty here is so big. The local resources to address it are frail or non-existent. A combination of fatalism, a karmic view and the vestigial caste structure of society together play some role in the perpetuation of these conditions. They might even explain much of this picture.
The many imported resources performing their individual missions of pouring money into social repair operate in what appears to me as a strange universe in which all parties are ensnared in a self-perpetuating dynamic. But here on the street, faced with the mysterious complexity of my own responses, I am thrown back into a not-knowing mind, letting it all sit just as it is without attaching any meaning whatsoever to it.
Unless….unless it hinges on a moment of recognizing our common humanity. We are the same. I live in a different universe than she. I am privileged beyond her imagination, but in that instant of recognition, I saw a person just like me. She reflected to me our common vulnerability, puncturing for a moment my well-constructed illusion of safety. Despite all the structures and layers of security I am privileged to erect around my life that protect me from circumstances such as hers, I cannot truly escape the truth of my fragility. No one can. Most of the time, those structures insulate me from feeling that vulnerability. But in that moment, she and I became equals. Her gift to me was to give me access-if only for an instant-to what I spend so much energy hiding. I repaid her for it. That was the simple essence of the entire transaction.
Unless one also considers Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphic resonance,’ which says that all our actions exist within and reinforce a field of intention that increases the possibility that similar actions may occur elsewhere. He would say that this action and other simple acts of compassion, superficial as they may seem, are propagated elsewhere in ways completely unknown to me. And further, what actions enhanced that field such that I was moved to act as I did? By these actions, we enhance the field of compassion in the world. We are its generator and the recipients of its benefit. Perhaps we are not quite as helpless as I thought.
It’s impossible to know her view, of course. Was her presence an act of desperation or a practiced act of faith? By what providence did she appear at that instant to midwife a moment of mutual recognition and an act of benevolence from me? Do I believe the universe provides–absolving me if I had not acted? Or was it already providing for me by putting her in front of me? Does it matter? Whatever I believe, there is plenty of evidence for the opposite view.
In the context of my growing overdose on singing bowls and other religious objects, cashmere and pashmina, trekking equipment, tanka shops, the same jewelry or the same clothing in every window, it was a rare moment of clarity; a simple act, committed without a moment of deliberation and with no second thoughts. In accepting my place at that moment, I found my place in the mandala of this place.