How to be Generous When You’re Poor

The world of a beggar is a small one. His borders are defined by how far his legs will carry him, or how long the ticket taker will let him sit on a bus for the change in his pocket. His mind isn’t bogged by the political tensions of countries far away, the rise and fall of stock prices, the endless rifts of pop culture updates or the pressing temptations of technology. If he’s in India, he’s sitting on the side of the road, bheedi in hand, wondering how he’ll move food rom his hand to his mouth. I’m looking at this man, making these assumptions about him, wondering what he really knows or believes. As I observe, he stands to stretch his legs. The mangled sandals beneath his heals drag along the red earth as he slowly makes his way to the counter of a restaurant. He walks away with two chapatis, a type of traditional Indian flat bread, priced at about 10 American cents each. He begins to munch on one. The other he hands to the lazy cow sitting some two feet from him. I just watched a homeless man share his lunch with a cow.

Thus is the nature of this place. If I ever had a complaint about the Indians, it is that they were too eager. ‘Guest is God’ is a philosophy lived out by those humbled by their daily struggles. My hands are being pressed with samosas, bheedis, pakora, incense, coconut, hindu blessings, and anything else a person of the subcontinent might find important. They wish to share their lives with me, with everyone, something so foreign to the place of my origin.

This can be hard to react to. A woman who speaks no english laughs at my attempts to stall her servings of rice. A friend insists I meet every single one of his relatives. A man laces fingers with me as I walk down the street before even saying hello. Simultaneously, it’s the peoples’ unique perspective that harbors everything there is to be learned in this place. Riding in an auto rickshaw, the driver suddenly stops and spins around. I imagine he’s detouring to pick up a friend, as so many others have done. Instead, he pulls to the side of the road and points excitedly. “Look! Look!” I turn my gaze to a chameleon hissing in the street. It stands shining in its lime green skin as it straddles the yellow lines of the black top. The driver makes a motion at me like clicking a camera. I pull mine out and snap a couple memories. Once I’m finished, he beings searching the ground for something. What he picks up is a tree branch. With it, he lifts the frightened oddity from the harshness of the pavement and lowers it into a bush. “Okay!” He beams a smile at me and gives me a thumbs up. I give him both back.

These are the moments made possible by the generosity of the impoverished. With no materials to exchange, they have discovered other ways to give. Humility has earned their generosity a sense of innovation. I am forced to reflect on my own life and whether or not I have given anything. Has anyone benefited from my time on Earth? Have I affected anyone in a positive way?

At times, it seems easy to forget the value of generosity. Self cultivation, the desire to stand on the soles of one’s own feet, can be an isolating endeavor. Connecting with people is a frightening task. To be genuine with someone is also to be vulnerable. You give yourself entirely with no plans of deception, no desire to impress, only to be accepted. The homeless, stifled as they are by the stigma which haunts them, often seek little more than our approval. Perhaps it is not they that should be seeking it from us.

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