The subject of this post is difficult for me to write about touching, as it does, on so many aspects of my thinking about life, poverty, joy and nihilism.
A few days ago, while I was walking along the far end of the main road of Mar Mikhael, my attention was drawn to a beggar. My memory of him as a physical entity is indistinct. My emotional memory of him however is clear.
Let’s start with the physical: he may as well have been a pile of discarded rags animated by unseen forces. The colour of the mound that he presented was the khaki-brown blur that all dirty cloth seems to eventually attain. Anyone who has ever seen Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoon strip will know the colour even though Charles Schulz captured the effect in pen and ink as a cloud of dust. At some level of filth, everything is the same colour-it must be a kind of entropic effect and in the case of this beggar, his skin had even taken on the same hue. He was a mound of rags, his face just part of the pile.
The movement of the rag-pile could as easily have been caused by hidden rodents rummaging around underneath as by a human being.
I looked at him, he caught my eye and I wondered: “What does he see?”
When I thought about him as I walked away from him, I wondered about his life, the details of his life. Where does he sleep? I imagined him exhausted lying on an infested mattress in an arrangement of stacked bedding, not bunk beds, but many beds stacked prison camp stlye. I imagined that the mattress was so stained as to be uniform-a big stain roughly the colour of shit. A threadbare sheet spastically covered the mattress, not really enveloping it, but splayed across it. He lay in the underwear version of his begging clothes, dirty hair and beard, dirty skin touching the mattress, which was striped like prison garb, and his feet were cantilevered off the edge of the bed with dirty toes splayed wide. His toenails were a blackened green and seemed much thicker and rougher than mine. As he slept.
“What did he eat?” I wondered. I imagined him at a table, like one of the refectory tables the Grande Dames of Achrafieh like, but this one made out of planks recovered from concrete moulding at a building site. Being roughly finished and therefore un-wipeable it had gained a smooth sheen, a putty-like layer of food grease, sweat and food crumbs. At that table I imagined several people like him, dirty and tired, but also, like him, enjoying his food, using his hands and bread to eat.
But back to the first question. “What does he see?” I have procrastinated in answering because I don’t know. I sit in front of this keyboard at a total loss.
It seems unlikely that he would have any conception of the worries I have. It might seem to him that my life would be wrought in some kind of gilt. It seems like at his distance that the details, that I consider so important close-up would be irrelevant. It could be that the only features he would make out would be things I’d have in common with almost everyone else walking on the sidewalk: a home, a refrigerator, money to pay for food, hot water, a safe place to sleep, a warm place to stay on a cold day.
Would his imagination of my life be any better than the projections I wrote above about his life?
If we go a step deeper, into his inner life, what is his emotional reaction to the world? I see him, I feel pity, I feel sad for him and for all of us. As I wrote the image of him in bed, I felt that I was writing about Jesus, that in his misery, he was somehow closer to God than the rest of us. Or maybe he brought me closer to God.
But what does he feel? How could he not be enraged by the injustice of life or, otherwise, saddened by what has befallen him? How could he bear the constant humiliation? Or does he not see it.
In the end, I am on a hillside looking at him in the valley, and he in the valley looking back at me. Neither of us can know what the other sees.
Matthew 25: 35-40 “‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ “