As I entered the drug store this afternoon, a man, obviously homeless, with long dirty disheveled hair and carrying a dirty blanket the way Charlie Brown from Peanuts would have, dragging it behind him, was just ahead of me. We weren’t even all the way inside when a man carrying his purchases–I couldn’t help notice a 6-pack of beer–stepped forward and shooed the man away telling him he was the manager and he was not allowed in. Without a word or even a moment’s hesitation, the homeless man turned around and left. I took a look at the man. Until then I hadn’t had a chance to notice that he was a customer just like me, and not at all the manager. So I spoke up telling him the homeless man had as much right to be there as he or I. He answered in a loud voice filled with anger that he “smelled 3 feet away” and that if I wanted to do something for him I should “give him $20 to go to a hotel to get cleaned up or else buy him what he needs”. I repeated that the homeless man had the same right to be there and walked on. The man ranted on to whomever was near him getting the ear of the cashier telling her that people like that should not be allowed in. I ought to have told him that I was closer to the homeless man than he and he did not smell, that his attitude was far more offensive than the sight of this man. But I realized it would have been as useful as punching holes in water. Instead I looked for the manager to tell him that I was not offended by the presence of that homeless man. He gave me a smile I would call one of relief. The cashier who had already listened to me, nodded and said, “oh yes we tend to everyone, whoever is here,” added referring to the customer, “we can only pray for him.” By the time I went out to look for the homeless man with the intent to escort him in, he was gone, I couldn’t find him.
Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, met a homeless man on Skid Row. He turned out to be a Julliard music student and Lopez wrote a book about him. Soloist is now a best seller already sold to the movies. Maybe soon our revulsion for the homeless will turn into curiosity for who really lies behind their off-putting appearance.
To my friends I’m known as a forgiving person. I don’t usually have to work at it the way many do, but forgiveness like any other worthwhile value requires thought and lots of love. That was particularly true of forgiving those who hurt two people I love–a paralyzed sister and a father with Alzheimer’s. Periodically, however, my forgiveness gets tested as it was when I read about Josef Fritzl, an Austrian electrician living in Amsetten, a little town not that far from Vienna. The American press hasn’t done much reporting about this story, but Der Spiegel, a German daily I read weekdays (in English) has been following it. Fritzl, it was accidentally discovered, kept his daughter, Elizabeth, prisoner in a basement dungeon for 24 years! If that’s not enough, he continually raped her, so much so he fathered seven children. Some he somehow decided to take above ground having her write letters that would sufficiently explain to the authorities what they needed to know so that he could adopt them. One died and he is said to have incinerated the body. The other 3 lived underground with their mother, and witnessed the ongoing rapes. While Elizabeth who was 18 when she was taken prisoner had seen daylight, the 3 children with her, the oldest being 19 years-old, never had.
As I read day after day–police and others are still in the process of discovering facts and piecing the story together–I realized it was the kind of event like the Holocaust testing the limit of my forgiveness. How could Josef Fritzl be forgiven? This wasn’t a wanton act, this was consistent,willful, premeditated, something that was not only one reprehensible act, but a series of them: kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, incest, mental and physical abuse, child endangerment, probably murder. The more facts emerge, the more it seems Fritzl is everything a human monster can be. How can someone like that be forgiven?
A few days later in the same Der Spiegel I read an interview with the Dalai Lama who has long been in a position of having to forgive the Chinese for the torture and the harm they have done to Tibetans. In addition, the Chinese government has recently called him a criminal and a beast, among other ugly names. When the interviewer asked if he was angry, the Dalai Lama explained how his faith kept him from anger and negative emotions, and then in an attempt to place the accusations into perspective, he suggested that blood samples be taken from him in order to determine if he was truly a beast.
It’ll still require time, thought and effort for me to forgive someone like Josef Fritzl, but if the Dalai Lama can forgive the Chinese’s atrocities in Tibet I am reminded that forgiveness is in order if I want to live a harmless life. It does not mean Mr. Fritzl can be absolved of his actions, it just means individuals like me ought to overcome their revulsion, anger and judgment and instead delve deeper into what creates a spirit of forgiveness.
I am entitled to change my mind. As far as I know anyone is. I would suppose it would also be so in a totalitarian regime. Unless one’s mind is controlled one can change one’s mind. In fact changing one’s mind is expected. How often each one of us has heard, wait ’til you get older inferring that age would teach us something and guide us to see whatever in a different light. Of course it’s not age per se, but the experience that automatically comes with it, and to be sure the learning that we may have had more time to engage in. It is clear then: for us, the factor of time and the learning and experience it implies, makes changing our minds a positive and seeing a given issue differently expected. Why doesn’t this seem to be so for politicians? As a rule we criticize those who change their minds. They flip flop, they bend with the wind, they adopt a stance for political reasons. Rarely do we seem to give them the benefit of the doubt or apply to them the same criteria: that time, its learning and experience may, and usually does, change one’s mind. When John Edwards ran for President a few months ago (seems so much longer doesn’t it?) it wasn’t enough for him to change his mind about having voted for the war, he had to apologize, then his change of mind could be taken seriously. It’s quite possible that while the change of mind was genuine, the apology was political–the opposite of how it was generally interpreted. But regardless of examples (and none that would be recent enough to illustrate this would come without an emotional charge that would negate the benefit of illustration) we seem to distrust a politician when he or she professes a different view on a given issue. We go back and look at their record and say, oops, he–or she–voted differently, he–or she–must be lying, or spinning their vote to appeal to this or that demographic group. Indeed there are times when a record is telling, when there is a consistency that tells us something, or some pattern that is revealing of something we ought to understand about them. But as we do, we ought to factor in the dimension of learning and experience, we ought to grant them the right we each have to change one’s mind. It may seem a small thing but it is an election year, soon we shall be deluged with political ads touting the record of so and so as an omen of whatever fear the other side wants us to feel. Hopefully we shall be wise to that, grant the candidate the same rights we have and come to our own conclusion.
A recent New York Times story mentions how the temple offerings of poor people in India are not what they used to be. Rising food prices makes it harder for them to buy enough milk for both themselves and the gods, or whatever food they would have ordinarily shared. In Cambodia a popular school breakfast is being phased out because the UN food program that sponsors it is now forced to make cutbacks. So many stories I’ve read over the last few weeks let me know how the rise in food prices is affecting the lives of so many in just about every part of the globe. Even in the U.S. food pantries are having a hard time keeping up with increasing demand. And yet, among the people I know the issue of food prices does not come up. None to my knowledge has had to make real adjustments. It’s not that I run around those wealthy enough to be immune to such things as food prices, it just seems that the people I talk to frequently don’t really have to worry about food. Sure, some may have to forego buying this or that item, postpone a vacation, avoid having household help or color their hair themselves, but none has had to alter his or her way of eating–unless of course they were dieting.
When I think of people in Egypt not being able to buy bread, of people in Mexico buying less tortillas, of people in India having less rice and lentils, and people in Africa sometimes not being able to buy food at all, I want to shake those I know who deign pasta because it has too many carbs, who won’t buy veggies unless they’re organic, who have the luxuries of buying carbon neutral products regardless of what they cost, who won’t eat leftovers and throw out food, who won’t eat chicken unless it’s at least free range, or who allow a caprice to let food rot in the frig because they feel like eating something else. But of course shaking them would not instill the sense of privilege we ought to feel. Sometimes we can’t help our circumstances, and the people I have in mind didn’t choose their advantages, but regardless of our advantages, large or small, those of us who have, have a responsibility to those who have not. It often hurts to remember that many go hungry while I and so many count calories not to gain weight, and it’s easy to forget about those who hunger, because frankly, sometimes bringing them into consciousness also brings pain.
It’s easy to assuage the murmurings of our principles, ethics and scruples by writing a check to whatever charity will next solicit us. But it’s not enough. We must widen the range of our conscience to deepen our understanding of what it means to share.