Selfish? Perhaps

A few years ago, I was invited to South Africa by an amazing woman, EK where I met many of her wonderful friends. Two who continue to inspire me are J and E; they work with the kids and gogos (isiZulu for grannies) of eSizameleni township on the outskirts of Wakkerstrom in South Africa. [eSizameleni translates to ‘we help each other’]. When I can, I give to their self-funded organisation, Smiley Families.

I have plenty of stuff; I don’t want for anything. When asked what I’d like for Christmas or my birthday, I say ‘money for  my township’. It’s not mine, of course, but through the regular updates from J, I feel as if it’s a small part of me. They showed me around when I was there and it was quite a sobering yet heartlifting experience.

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Compared to this typical two-roomed house in eSizameleni that is often home to extended families of ten or more, my single-occupancy multi-roomed flat in Budapest is palatial. I could spend my days feeling guilty about having so much when others have so little but that would be both a waste of time and a waste of energy. Each of our circumstances is different. Who knows what the next life might bring for me… or you. I have friends better off and worse off than me in the material stakes: some make salaries I can only dream of (were I so inclined); others are barely making ends meet. What we have in common is not our material wealth, but our values, our outlook on life, our shared sense of compassion. These are what matter.

SA Football team

A couple of years ago, the money I sent was used to buy kit for the town’s football team. When I opened this photo, I cried. Not from any sense of misguided self-congratulations – it wasn’t a case of ‘wow, how great am I’ – but rather from that sense of achievement that only comes from being in a position to make a difference, however small, and choosing to do so.

Giving financial help to strangers is relatively easy; giving it to friends is not as easy. We are conditioned to going it alone; to seeing financial help as a handout. We are taught to be self-reliant, to be independent. Offers bounce back with choruses of ‘Thanks all the same but I really can’t accept.’ Can’t? or Won’t? That year in Wakkerstrom, EK taught me an invaluable lesson: in refusing to let her buy something for me (I was broke at the time), I was depriving her of the opportunity to do something nice, to pay it forward. I was being selfish. Instead of smiling, saying thank you, and making us both happy, I went through the litany of shouldn’ts, couldn’ts, and can’ts. In her own inimitable way, she patiently explained her logic. It took a while for me to be comfortable with her generosity.  It was a difficult lesson to learn. If you cut me open I’m sure that you’d find the words ‘self-sufficient’ tabooed on some part of my innards. But in learning how to accept graciously, I’ve become a better person. I continue to pay it forward. And the more I give, the more I receive. Not euro for euro or forint for forint or rand for rand, but in terms of friendship, love, consideration, and a general sense of well-being. Sadly, it’s not easy getting people to agree with me.

One of my heroes, Antony de Mello, makes the point that we shouldn’t delude ourselves. When we give to the homeless in the street, we do so to make ourselves feel better, not with any great expectation of making a huge difference in their lives. We often don’t give because we reckon they will spend our hard-earned money on booze and cigarettes. But so what if they do? If it makes their lives a little easier, why should we care? In giving to friends, we pay it forward in the hope that when the day comes that we need help, someone will be there for us, too.

I had an e-mail from J recently telling me how my last contribution had been spent. I know he won’t mind me quoting it.

I was going to try and take the grannies on a trip to a Zulu cultural and historic centre about 300 km from here to see if they could be inspired by some of the traditional crafts that their ancestors had produced.  Sadly this fell through as I could not get hold of a bus from the local bus company.  Eventually we opted for putting it towards some Christmas hampers.  We decided that rather than get them some of the day-to-day foodstuffs, we would get them some special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life. 

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I read of this and of the 60 families that benefited and then saw the accompanying photograph. These special treats are a stark reminder of the material imbalance in the world. I firmly believe that those of us who have, have a responsibility to give. And the more we have, the more we should give. FI, in a Facebook update about the plight of homeless in Budapest, said recently: A piece of clothing, some food, perhaps a few hundred forints goes a long way in helping these people survive the winter of 2012. Since I read that, I don’t leave the house without coins in my pocket. Instead of shaking my head when approached on the street, I give. Even if it’s only 100 forint. I have no way of knowing how much or little difference it will make to them, but I know the huge difference it makes for me. Selfish? Perhaps.

All it takes is that extra second’s thought to remind myself that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Be it time, money, food, or simply a smile or a hug, in my mind, it is the act of giving that will save the world.

To J & E … thank you!



7 Responses

  1. Wonderful Mary. it occurred to me whilst most would like to leave behind some kind of enduring edifice, or a cure for polio, or a timeless melody, or a painting with an enigmatic smile … I think now, its not so much what one leaves behind whence passing thru the veil, but who – those we’ve known and likewise those who’ve touched our lives …. i doubt anyone ever knows the total affect of a casual comment, a smile, a helping hand – to actually know might remove the magic.

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