Today I crossed path with an old woman at the traffic junction of Raffles City and SMU. She had short chin-length straight hair and was skinny. Her clothes old and faded. Though she looked generally clean, her nails were unkept and her teeth were discolored and a little crooked. She looked wasted.
She approached all those who were waiting at the traffic lights to cross. All of them ignored her, walked around her or just declined. Then, she approached me.
“Can you give me some money? I have totally no money left. I’ve got nothing to eat. Maybe about $30? If you have, please give. If you don’t have, its okay.” (She said this all in chinese. And yes, I understood all of it. God usually makes sure I get the message when it matters… hmm, that also implies that my ‘O’ levels exams didn’t matter. Haha.)
She only had a big plastic bag of plastic bags next to her. She also seemed a little odd. Not quite drugged out, but perhaps traces of a mental problem? I was inclined to simply walk passed, assuming she was just like many others who are asking for donations. However, in my spirit, unconsciously, three things immediately stood out. 1) She wasn’t sitting around asking for donations. 2) She wasn’t as organized as others who have licenses and approach donors in practical places like cafes or fast food centers – she was in the hot sun, at the traffic light junction. 3) She looked like she had to go somewhere, with an odd plastic bag of smaller plastic bags with unseen objects on the ground.
Too Easy to Reject
Straight away, conventional thoughts entered my mind. As humans, when we are confronted by certain uncomfortable situations, we have a tendency to blink-reason away around it so we do not have to challenge ourselves sacrifice a little. We place her in a box, a category of people.
Why were the rest of the people ignoring her?
Is she there because she was a drug addict?
Is she there to freeload? Maybe she gets $30 from multiple people, and makes $600 dollars a day?!
I encounter people who ask for money often, I give more than 50% of the time, so can’t I give this one a miss?
Obviously she doesn’t have family or friend support. Does her plight stem from a structural social or economic problem that, if I chose to give, might give short term relief but continue this viscous cycle in the longer term?
Convention thoughts told me to ignore her. This is Singapore. There are channels for her to get help if she is legitimate, etc etc.
“Lucky” for me, I actually ran out of cash, so I didn’t have to lie. I told her that I didn’t have any cash.
I rejected her.
I proceeded to walk towards Singapore Management University (SMU), hopefully – maybe I would absorb some quantitative financial skills by osmosis? Yet, every step I took away from her made my spirit more uncomfortable – that I should have gave, as compared to how my brain was uncomfortable in giving.
The Spirit vs the Heart
What’s the difference between hearing from the Spirit versus your heart? A person’s heart would just feel compassion because she looked poor, we can give, yet we don’t know how far this money will go in truly doing something of purpose in her life. A Spirit of discernment in Christ would feel a compulsion because God wants to accomplish something meaningful and purposeful in perhaps both parties, the giver and the receiver. Compassion by itself is about feelings. Discernment is about Godly purpose. We should thrive for both.
I recalled one day, sometime in 2010, after meeting a particular missionary for 1 hour, I felt that she needed a sum of money, and I wrote her a cheque for a few thousand dollars. I was saving that money for a year to give away, and I felt there and then, that this was the person to give it to. Immediately after seeing the amount, she exclaimed, did you know that I had to pay for my son’s annual school fees in 3 days, and the amount was almost that exact amount?
That’s how you know this was of God, and not just a random act of compassion.
Random acts of compassion can actually not be beneficial. For example, money given to drug addicts may cause them to continue their destructive habits and people family around them suffer. But directed acts of God can start chain reactions to change and infuse meaning into people’s lives. It’s all about meaning.
If you were born lucky, the world may seem beautiful, if not, it’s unyielding despair is the logical conclusion?
As a Christian, and in my years of capitulation, I needed to be transformed in the Spirit and hear from my Spirit in order for me to victorious in a world that was unkind to me. When I was treated with indifference, and my genetic disease started to worsen to debilitation without any fault of my own, it was so easy for me to relate to new atheist’s Dawkin’s observation about the indifference of the world:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
There is nothing new here, a much more impactful version is by Bertrand Russell, Free Man’s Worship:
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grace; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
It is so much easier for the popular, the celebrated, the healthy, the understood to get ahead. People rally around them naturally, such is the function of our selfish genes. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I find this to be true not just in the realm of money, but also of social equity as well. Yet, the destiny of whether you have it easy or difficult sometimes is not based on merit, but rather, your genes, or upbringing… the mere contemplation of dumb luck dictating which side of the cycle we run on itself can yield to despair, in fact, unyielding despair. I knew this feeling only too well.
However, the feeling of despair implies meaning must exist. If, from day one, everything we know all have random origins, why do we yearn for meaning at all? The darker the darkness implies light must exist.
C.S. Lewis argues succinctly when he opines in his book, Mere Christianity:
“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should have never found out that it has no meaning; if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
Most healthy and most young take often ignore a simple unshakable truth – that the poor and suffering and the rich and healthy all will eventually end up in the same place – effectively dead and buried. The poor will simply get there faster. For the rich and healthy, what of all their pleasures and achievements? Meaning does not come by riches and health alone. What is meaning? I hope to scratch the surface in the accounts following below.
I tangent-ed off too far, forgive me.
Back to the story.
Not a dime-a-dozen
I already had a half a minute conversation with her, and had already ended off our encounter rejecting her. As I was walking off, and my spirit was telling me to go back with the money, even more thoughts tried to dissuade me.
“It’s so embarrassing to go back after spending time rejecting her.”
“You pass by so many people asking for money, she is a dime a dozen, you can give to someone else another day. It’s not like you don’t give… you actually give frequently…”
Then, the spirit hit me with a thought. She is not a dime a dozen. She is an individual whose life and experiences are important and she loved by God. By simply associating her with a category of people, am I not putting her in a box? Think of all the great plans that we imagined as a kid growing up. Think of all the hopes and dreams sprinkled into our hearts as we journeyed with God. If adversity indescribable temporarily disrupted the obvious path and caused us to take a path into the unknown, how would we feel if people categorized what could have been the hardest, yet most rewarding journey as a dime-a-dozen?
The aftermath of Sam and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings saga comes to mind. Frodo had to unexpectedly leave the world he knew (the Shire), to venture into a bigger and more important world (Middle Earth). There, he encountered adversity and evil indescribable. He conquered the bigger of the worlds and saved it, but was spiritually and emotionally scarred in the process. No one in the Shire or in Middle Earth could have accomplished what he beautifully and sacrificially accomplished. Yet, on his return to the Shire, none of the older folks cared where he went. They just assumed that his departure was a frivolous triviality, and didn’t pay any attention to him.
When i look into the eyes of the “homeless”, I wonder whether I have belittled someone who’s spiritual maturity and experience dwarfs mine. That person could have had to negotiate wonders uncertain, difficulties untold, and deal with a heart broken in more ways I can imagine. If the Bible says that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18), then these “homeless” would have experienced a closeness to God that may be envious. No wonder Mother Teresa says that when she helps these people, she is helping Jesus himself. No wonder the Bible can say that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt 20:16).
Turning around was surrender. A surrender for Jesus.
Compelled, I decided to find $30 from elsewhere, and then sought to return back to the same spot. About 10 minutes had elapsed since I bumped into her the first time, get $30 from the ATM, and return back.
In the distance, while walking back, I had a difference perspective as compared from the first time I bumped into her unexpectedly. I could frame the entire scene of her interaction with people in chronological fashion, and not the brief snapshot in my unexpected moment with her. She would ask each person coming; and share more of her story. She was willing to touch the bottom of the barrel in dignity and admit that she had absolutely no money left. Even the more “professional beggars” in the food courts would simply ask something like, “can you help me? I’m an ex-convict.” They wouldn’t admit that they “spent all their money away and now have nothing.” With each rejection, I can see the quiet discouragement and shame slowly trickling into her facial expressions. Each time she asked, it was a little less hopeful, a little more downcast.
She saw me again, and walked towards me. Then, she realized that she had approached me before and I had rejected her the first time, so she nodded at me to acknowledge my presence, but did not attempt to ask me for money.
This time, I walked up to her, put my hand on her shoulder, and “shook her hand” with the other, with the money in my palm.
She immediately lit up. And, gratefully, she reiterated that she really needed the money, and she was thankful. The moment she got the money, she quickly left with purpose, obviously to go and buy food or something important to her.
I was actually relieved that she quickly left, in a purposeful manner. It showed that she really needed exactly that $30 for something, and she wasn’t there to continue to collect funds for people. It also meant that in the 10 minutes that I had left her, most likely nobody gave her any money, else she would have left earlier.
Most importantly, I suddenly felt all was well with the world.
Not because I was “compassionate” to give money.
Not because I cured poverty in the world.
But because God guided me past my selfish and dismissive tendencies in order to do something purposeful for someone else. This gives me much hope that God is doing the same with many other people everyday. In the midst of “random” sufferings and emptiness, God is directing the world to create meaning. It gives me hope that in the future, when I really need help, someone might hear God’s voice, reject his initial dismissive attitude, and reach out. Then, in the midst of my downcast spirit, I would have received both provision and meaning.
Always be cognizant that a person could be bigger than your box. The part you despise could be his catalyst for greatness.
Don’t forget this, there are people out there that cannot be totally put into your box. The degree that they fall out of the box as compared to the parts that are in the box of people’s understanding can be the degree of their anguish and pain. Most people that commit suicide don’t do so because people don’t understand them. They do so because they are convinced that people can’t understand them. It’s that sense of hopelessness that nothing they can do can help the situation. That nothing they can do can reverse people’s opinion of them. If they believed the situation could have been helped, they wouldn’t have had suicidal thoughts in the first place.
That’s why we should always be humble in what we know, and always be reflecting how we know our worldview is actually correct, or lacking in detail. Great suffering can ensue if we impose our own box on others, especially if our snap-judgments are false. After all, it is the nature of your worldview that defines what is truth to you, and this worldview of ours is created by our intellect and our experiences. Your worldview is your truth. That’s why when a person falls outside of the box of your worldview, and you are holding him accountable according to your box, you may be judging and condemning him unfairly and unconsciously. Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird come to mind. Because Boo was a recluse, many children would avoid him and let their imaginations run wild to what sort of person he was. In the end, it turns out Boo had much moral courage and would go to great lengths to protect the same children that were either afraid of him, or made fun of him. Boo’s past experiences scarred him and made him a recluse, the children identified Boo as some kind of strange man or monster; but those same experiences made him do exceptional things.
How you view the world is directly affected by superficial things about you. Different “yous” may see the world differently.
Also consider that even the way you know things could have easily been changed.
When I was much younger, my immune system problem was significantly more manageable, and I had everything a teenager could want. A good family, good grades, athletic, cute, etc. I was celebrated by many people, I thought most people were kind, and many people thought I was kind. Every new person wanted to get to know me. The world seemed to be a nice place.
Fast-forward ten years, my immune system started malfunctioning. I get sick much more often, my skin is perpetually infected and inflamed. I put on weight, I am no longer athletic, my career and love-life slowly diminishing. I was prone to depression. It didn’t seem i would amount to much. I literally had a lot less friends, even some friends at church cast me away. New people were polite, but none really wanted me in their inner circle. The world seemed to be the exact place Richard Dawkins talked about – an unfriendly place.
Hold on! What changed about me such that people treated me differently, and thus, could have easily changed the way I thought about the world? Nothing. i was the exact same soul, in the exact sincere journey. The only thing that happened was that one little gene in my body decided to malfunction. That’s small straw started a chain-reaction to break multiple camels in my life. Hence, we should always be careful in what we think we know, for even our reality, as defined as our interaction with the world, can easily change for superficial reasons. We should be very cognizant of how fragile our understanding of reality is, just as we should be cognizant of how fragile our historical constructions can be.
God’s Discernment can Reverse the process of meaninglessness.
When we do things with God’s discernment, we do our part to reverse the process. We can start small events that can cascade into victory in other people’s lives. Before Nick Vujicic got to the point where he could front his ministry, Life Without Limbs, he went through many challenges and feelings of depression. Think about how many people chose to help him in various ways, till his confidence and maturity in Christ increased to get to this point? Imagine if no one encouraged him, or worse still, put him in a box? Imagine if everyone simply assumed that Nick, as a severely crippled man, will simply end up forgotten and be totally dependent on his family at home like all the other crippled people…
Consider Job’s friends. It is their reality that God is good and that He doesn’t punish good people. Job was suffering and cursed in undeniable, unearthly ways. Hence, Job must have been evil. It was this condemnation by the people that made up the world to Job, that caused Job to go through chapters and chapters of dissonance.
Consider Jesus too. “Can anything good come out of Bethlehem?”
But conventional wisdom was wrong. The Savior of the world came out of Bethlehem.
I have also been a victim of other’s snap conventional wisdom as well. Many people could not understand the extent of my health problems, but thought that they did – that lead to a lot of anguish on my part. Soon, inaccurate judgements on the extent of my health led to even worse value and character judgments. Soon, I was shunned away and made to feel irrelevant.
At the end of the day, for this particular lady, I just know that if I were in her exact position and asking for money, I hope someone would help me and not judge me too. I too have been in desperate situations that are difficult for others to understand. It is too easy, too fallen, to focus efforts to other people who benefit us in ways we understand. But when help and trust was finally given to me, when I knew that there was nothing naturalistic-ally that would attract help to me, that was like a slice of heaven. When there is hints of heaven, that is when purpose and love come together in a warm handshake, and a sweet scent of serendipity diffuses.
“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels unaware.” Heb 13:2
“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own,” 1 Cor 8:2-3
Thank you for reading this lengthy post.