While in Dharamsala (home in exile to the Dalai Lama) for a few weeks’ respite from the empathy business, Laura, my partner, was up just after dawn for one of her photography missions.
By the side of Temple Road an old leper woman squatted, half-naked in filthy rags and shivering with the cold. In the foothills of the Himalayas early mornings can be extremely bitter. Without further thought Laura discarded her woollen Tibetan cardigan she’d bought the previous evening and handed it to the old lady. Her eyes lit up as she hugged the warm fabric to her frail body and admired the rainbow colours in sharp contrast to her drab rags. Laura bought her a cup of hot chai but had to help her drink it because the woman had no fingers left due to leprosy.
As she helped her a tourist stopped, looked down at them and sneered: “Who do you think you are, Mother Teresa?”
Such words shouldn’t be dignified with a response and he received none other than the old leper woman just muttering, “karma, karma,” to herself.
Laura’s actions, though clearly humane, shouldn’t be seen as uncommonly virtuous or saintly (even in sarcasm) but a normal human response from one person to another who had the means to ease a little suffering at one particular moment in time. It is not really altruistic. Most people in social care, especially volunteers, know that the providers of care get as much from the exchange as the receiver.
Many of our cities and towns operate a zero-tolerance policy towards beggars. Police and local authorities encourage people not to give money. Reports have been made of how our booted and suited are being intimidated and distressed by beggars. Tell that to the young girl with the badly swollen face who received a kicking for no more than sleeping in a doorway. But giving money is only part of it. Often it’s mere human contact, someone stopping, crouching down and talking to them to validate their worth.
Politics and endless restructuring of organisations can never be the solution when the conflict without is the result of the conflict within. Perhaps there should be less emphasis on our sacrosanct individualism and more awareness of the interconnectedness of all our lives – the essence of our common humanity.
Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service