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.

IMG_0520 (800x518)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 teamA 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. 

Misc 2012 12 08 015 (800x596)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. Check out this video from Noah and the Whale… it explains the ripple effect of thoughtfulness better than I ever could.

To J & E … thank you!



Time as a couch, not a tool

Last week, I did something I rarely do. I went to evening mass on Saturday. A middle-aged man stood by one of the confessionals, watching his daughter or granddaughter running up and down the aisle. He seems a little distracted. I looked again, and saw that he was texting. None of this surreptitious in-your-pocket stuff; there he was, standing in full view of half the church, busily sending SMSs as the priest did his bit on the altar. I thought perhaps it was just the one message – a life or death situation – but when I looked again, some ten minutes later, he was still at it.

Of course, I should have been saying my prayers and not wondering how others were spending their mass time – but I wasn’t. I should have been paying attention to what the priest was saying – but I wasn’t. I should have been present, in the church, at mass, head focused, brain in gear – but I wasn’t. Instead, I was getting more and more annoyed at a complete stranger. Irrationally so. I didn’t know him from Adam. And his texting during mass would have zero affect on my life once I left the church. So why was I so distracted by him? More to the point though, have I completely lost my ability to concentrate and stay focused on one thing for more than five minutes?


The year 2012 has been one of serious introspection for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the alignment of the planets.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. I do know, however, that every little detail of my life has to be parsed and analyzed. Every action has to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why it happened. Every conversation has to be replayed to catch the nuances and inferences that I might have been missed first time around. Am I going mad? Is this the onset of menopause? Or am I simply a victim of 21st-century navel-gazing?


This week’s pre-occupation, brought on by my texting-while-at-mass stranger, is with my attention span, or lack thereof. I’m a great advocate of what the likes of Ekhart Tolle and Antony de Mello call ‘being present’ and what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’. I try to concentrate on one thing at a time but it’s quite difficult when the levels of oestrogen in my body naturally lend themselves to multi-tasking. I try to be present. I do. Really. Yet it seems as if the world is conspiring against me. There are so many distractions. So many gadgets. So many interruptions.


It’s as if I have forgotten how to relax. Every waking minute has to be put to productive use. I read on the tram, the metro, the bus, standing in line at the post office, waiting for a friend to show. If I’m not reading, I’m updating my diary, tidying my phone messages, sorting the contents of my handbag. In Malta recently, I took a day off. Determined not to switch on my computer for a whole day, I even left my phone in my room and took myself off to the pool, with my book. But could I relax? Hello no. I tossed and turned on the sunbed. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had a string of things running through my head that I should have been doing. I was planning my work for the coming week, mentally arranging various meetings and appointments, scheduling my writing tasks. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t switch off.


Back in Budapest, I tried again. One day. No computer. No phone. Just me, myself, and I. I managed to sit still for five minutes before spotting a cobweb – eight hours later, my books were sorted in alphabetical order by author, my wardrobe was colour-coded, and every loose sheet of paper was filed in its proper place.  I tried again – this time venturing outside the four walls of my world. I figured I’d simply wander the streets and take time to the empty city.  A four-day weekend found just me and the tourists in town. Out on the street I was faced with an insurmountable choice: turn right for the tram, left for the metro. Because I had no plan, no specific place to be, no one to meet, I couldn’t for the life of me make up my mind which way to turn. Rather than waste valuable time, I headed back inside to sort my spice rack.

Where did we go wrong? When did we lose our ability to relax? When did we get so fixated with productivity? John F. Kennedy suggested we use time as a tool and not as a couch but I think we’ve gone a little too far.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 May 2012.