Friday, April 04, 2008

Ahimsa & Satyam

Most mornings I walk about a mile and a half to the gym for a quick workout before work. I love this walk during spring and summer. I past blooming snow drops and crocuses in April. I enjoy the serenade of beautiful birdsongs throughout May and June. I’m wrapped in cool morning breezes during the hot months.
My walk starts out in Portland’s business district, Congress Street and the like, before meandering through the city’s small industrial area near bayside. In all of this, there’s one particular area I treasure walking through the most: Portland Street. That’s where the soup kitchen is. As I walk up Portland Street and veer left onto Oxford I pass a veritable army of Portland’s homeless. They’re coming from the various shelters towards the soup kitchen for breakfast.
When I reach this area I take my headphones and sunglasses off. I slow down. I try to make eye contact with each person I pass and I wish them a good morning. The expressions I get are worth the extra five minutes that are added to my walk. They, that mysterious They we call those who aren’t members of what we define as productive society, smile back. Many look surprised to be greeted so casually.
It’s a silly thing. Why should I care about saying hello to some vagabond whose face I’ll forget in thirty seconds. And why the hell should they smile at somebody like me wishing them a good morning but not doing anything else for them?
The answer all comes down to something my mom taught me. “Try to see the humanity in everybody you pass,” she often said. “You may be the only person to smile and say hello to them all day.” If I heard that lesson once, I heard it a thousand times. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, I must of heard her say those sentences at least once every two weeks.
I didn’t really understand what she meant or believe her until July of 2000. I was working at a coffee shop in Monument Square and every Wednesday, after finishing my shift at two, I would spend all of my tip money on flowers from the flower market and then walk through the city handing them out to people for no reason at all.
One Wednesday I had one last stem of daisy’s left and I was working my way towards home – I was living a few blocks up from the square on Congress Street. I passed a woman in her forties sitting on the curb. When I gave her the flowers she started sobbing. “Nobody has ever given my flowers in my life,” she said. I sorta freaked out, not publicly or on her, but I never gave out flowers again like that. I got angry at her for ruining what had been a fun, whimsical past time by showing me how much it meant to people. I could never give out flowers again without wondering if I was about to change a life. I didn’t want that responsibility. I just wanted to see people smile.
Then I got it. I didn’t know the words for it at the time, but know I understand it to be my first deep realization of ahimsa and satyam. In a world of violence, particularly the emotional violence suffered by the invisible masses of working poor, homeless, addicted and wounded, I acted in a way to intentionally counter that violence – this si the non-violence of ahimsa. In a world of lies and pressures telling people they need to consume, and “Buy! Buy! Buy!” I found truth in the act of giving freely something not processed, not edited, just grown from the earth – this truthfulness is satyam.
These were not great acts. I’m under no illusions about the ability to help through flowers. Nor were these acts selfless. On the contrary, I acted from purely selfish motivations – I love seeing surprised smiles. But neither fact negates the small good done by them. Like smiling at the homeless I passed, I opened a door that allowed the humanity of this one woman to come through. It burned to hot for me then, I was and still am very immature, though I begin to understand it now.

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