A buzz from downstairs.
“Who is this?” I enquired.
One more buzz.
“Who is there?” I repeated.
Again, no answer.
The outside door of my building clearly states: “Don’t let any strangers in, unless you want your Amazon parcels stolen”. A little annoyed, I decided to go downstairs to check it out.
I found a young man in an Amazon jumper already sorting out the parcels in the lobby. Somebody else must have let him in.
“I am from apartment 41,” I told him, “You’ve buzzed my number, any packages?”
Giving me an innocent look, he pointed out to a mask on his mouth, shrugged his shoulders and then moving his fingers, “solicited” me to repeat my apartment number in sign language.
A thunderbolt went down my spine; this young man was deaf. Not only he could not hear, he could not even read my lips, as I was wearing a mask on my face. I felt so bad and guilty for using my usual assumptions. I stretched out my four fingers of my right hand and a forefinger of my left to indicate forty-one. He went through a stack of deliveries and handed me one parcel.
I looked at him, nodding in appreciation and giving him a “forced” smile that got mirrored in my eyes, and ran upstairs to the fourth floor with my heart bleeding all the way down to my heels. I could not wait to get to my kitchen, sit down and cry my heart out. What a plight!
Something happens to me every time I see a physically challenged or severely life deprived person, trying to make a living, doing one’s best in life in order not to be left behind. Calcification of my heart breaks down; the shell gets removed. And only love, compassion and gratitude start oozing out. All my problems disappear in an instant. All the issues I am having until that moment, when I am face to face with this type of human predicament, lose their gravity. There cannot be anything more unfortunate than this: to become (or be born) bereft of a fully functioning body and/or mind, [or even more, to become a burden on others (due to the previous cause)].
As I continued to sit on my kitchen chair sobbing, my mind got flooded with many similar instances from the past. A few summers back in Europe, when days stretch into nights and the sun almost never sets, one evening I was cycling along a bike path, flanked by absolutely stunning field terrains covered with an out of this world colour palette of blooming flowers, and lush green forests in a distance, with no human beings around. Devouring these picture-perfect views on both sides, inhaling the freshest air possible, I was thinking to myself, life could not get any better.
It was a real paradise on Earth. I lifted my head up and suddenly spotted another person in the distance, approaching me from the opposite direction. But he was not on a bicycle, nor was he walking. He was in a wheelchair. Shivers went down my spine, my breathing changed, I found myself slowing down. Yet he was going really fast, using all his arm power to roll forward. As he was coming closer, I noticed that he was a man in his early 40s with handsome facial features, probably trying to stay fit and enjoy nature, as much as I did. Our paths were about to cross. A million thoughts were racing through my head. On what note will I mark this split of a second encounter, which, for sure, will have a long- lived imprint in my heart and my memory bank?
Of course, I was pained to the core to sight a physically disabled person. I was hardly holding my tears back, yet I gave him a big smile, because deep down I knew he did not want my compassion (or anyone’s else’s for that matter). He just wanted to be (re-)accepted into a society and stay on par with each one of us. I knew the last thing he would ever want was to talk about that “life changing” day (verbally or otherwise). It was gone. It could not be changed, no matter how much he would have liked his reality to be different. He was doing his best not to give up on life; he did not want to be left behind.
I could not sleep that night. I wanted to ask God a million questions. Why? What was this God’s leela all about? Why him and not someone else? Or why anyone at all had to go through this?? Did God keep a tab on all our karmas? Even a positive answer to this would not have given me much relief. And what about that young boy that I saw a few months prior in a coffee shop in Bangkok, when taking a lunch break from my work? That frail genitor boy, whose half body seemed to be paralyzed, that he could hardly co-ordinate his both arms in order to clean the tables. It took him immense effort to do the job he was hired for. Tears were running down my cheeks as I was reliving those moments (as well as I am writing this now).
By all means, I felt immense respect for and gratitude to the management of the cafe, that they gave this boy a chance. A chance to be useful, to be of service to others. They gave him a reason to live. But this has not lessened my pain, the pain that I still feel for him or for any other physically challenged or deprived of basics of life person. My whole existence was put into a perspective again. All my pity issues have vanished in an instant. My life seemed like a bed of (thornless) roses.
More and more stories kept coming alive as I was lying in bed with my eyes closed; with each one of them my pillow was getting increasingly drenched. I remembered the morning I was seated on the floor alongside many others in the dining hall of the dev bhoomi Sri Badrika Ashram for lunch, and saw a mother with her physically/mentally handicapped son in his early 20s, who started serving us food. I believe it was their bhandara day. I looked at the boy and silent waterfalls started gushing forth through my eyes. I came to see Swamiji with a pressing issue at the time, but this scene put everything in perspective again. My problem lost its gravity. I tried to control my tears as not to cause any disturbance to the people around me enjoying their food. I had a lump in my throat, I could not eat any more.
My heart was bleeding. Most likely this young man has accepted his plight or probably never even knew anything different, if he was born with this, like that blind massage lady I met years ago during my time in Southern China. The latter gave me many insights and shared numerous stories of what life was like for her. We incidentally (or maybe not:)) shared the same name. She became my friend, as I visited her regularly at her little massage parlor, trying to generate more business for her. She did not feel the pain or questioned life the way I did. She lived in full acceptance of what was.
What’s wrong with me? Am I too weak? Why can I not accept life in all its colours? As the saying goes, we would not know what light is, if there was no dark. And who is to define these terms? Is there some universal formula? I slowly put all the questioning aside, and again, I could not feel anything but gratitude for everything I had in life thus far. Every single story was a huge reality check on my own life! My tears of pain got mixed with tears of gratitude, which were very different. Their taste was distinct, each drop carried a very different emotion inside. So much to be grateful for!
One more story came alive in front of my closed eyes, before I finally managed to get into a sweet sleeping mode in the wee hours of the morning. Years back I was in the gym on the treadmill, happily jogging my way to a healthy heart:), when suddenly a TV screen above me started showing young children in Africa with a cleft lip. The people running the program were trying to raise some money to perform correcting surgeries on these kids.
They needed usd 350 per child for the materials to be provided to volunteer doctors. I lived on a very tight budget in NYC at the time. But I couldn’t just turn my head another direction and pretend that I had not seen this; drops of pain had seeped into my beingness by that time. I slowed down my treadmill to a walking mode and took the number down, hoping to raise some money somehow, at least for one kid. Guess what? That very same evening I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up something and found the exact amount of folded notes on the floor. Naturally, right away I ran to the cashier and enquired if anyone claimed for lost money. They responded in a negative.
“Ok, if anyone claims for it, please take my number,” I insisted.
I even stopped by the pharmacy again two days later to check on this. Nobody claimed this money, so I donated it all for the above cause. Call it serendipity, God’s intervention, the power of the mind or anything, but I was happy I could at least help one child (given the money went for what they claimed they were going to use it for; but this was already God’s business).
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire” is the line from one of my favourite movies of all times, based on true facts — “Schindler’s List”. But like Liam Neeson, acting in a role of Mr. Oskar Schindler, I wished I could have helped more kids. Well, his circumstances were different. In one very touching scene he said: “I could have done more. I threw away so much money, you have no idea. I didn’t do enough”. He then pointed to his posh (for those days) car and added with tears in his eyes, going weak on his knees: “This car! Why did I keep this car?? Ten people right there [could have been saved]”. And he went even further removing a pin from his lapel: “This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people, or at least one. One more person. (…) And I didn’t.”
My eyes well up every time I watch this scene because it is so pertinent to this day and age. We spend so much money on unnecessary baggage in our lives, hoping it will provide us with more comfort, more happiness, enhance our image, give us more acceptance. We are caught in such a fake drama on a daily basis! The list of our desires never ends. It is a bottomless bucket!
We keep on complaining about our lives, putting ourselves at the centre of the Universe, where only our problems matter, only our issues are real. We forget about how many millions of people out there don’t even have their human “instrument” in place to pursue their human potential to its fullest. We keep on praying for accessories of life in order to enhance our personhood even further, while taking the basics for granted. We feel entitled! How about putting our lives in perspective of a Bigger picture of Life?
These days, I feel guilty asking God for anything. My prayer of request has turned into that of gratitude. Immense gratitude for everything that I already have in my life. By God’s Grace, I have a fully functioning body with all indriyas in place; I can see, I can hear, I can smell, I can walk, I can breathe, I have food to eat… There is so much to be grateful for every day. This in itself provides me with a platform to explore life to its fullest and help others (to take up this flight) along the way. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, “let’s be grateful for small mercies of life.” Tomorrow these are not guaranteed.
PS. Sorry, the above piece has turned out to be much longer than intended. But more importantly, I hope I didn’t paint some perfect picture of myself with a big heart and full of compassion. Trust me, I failed many a times, too. So again, I apologize, if I came across as some exalted:) human being. I am still very far away from this…