Saturday, June 17, 2006

Who am I....

It seems that in our culture, old age is seen as a repairable condition rather than a natural end to the rhythm of life. Every where I turn there are ads for looking younger, feeling younger, becoming younger, and just plain pretending to be younger. At my time of life, age is becoming more of an issue, and less of a celebration. As each year passes, I pause to wonder how much longer and how much vitality I have left. So, I make the best with what I have and move as quickly as I can, catching my breath and looking forward to the next heartbeat. And then I sit and rest and reflect. A little over dramatic, but it’s the concept that needs exploring and that’s what this little piece is about.

A few months ago, while flying back from the Middle East and Ethiopia, I sat back and reflected (30 hours of flying time to be exact). I had with me memories of looking into the eyes of 2 men who had aged gracefully, still full of life, without complaints, and thankful for who they were and for what they have.

They were garbage collectors in Ezbet, a “garbage city” in the slums of Cairo. Their whole life consists of collecting garbage, sorting it, living in it, eating it and sleeping in it. This is what they live for and that is all they know. And for that, they remain thankful. They make a living of about fifty cents a day if that, eat what they can find and live in a shelter made up of old burlap bags and cardboard boxes. They have been friends for over 50 years, and have no family other than each other. Partners, pals, brothers, soul mates. I spent several hours with them simply because I wanted to and more importantly because they made me smile. Despite their hardships, they had an outlook on life that is wanting in most of us: to be happy with what we have. Never once did either of them complain about their situation. Never once did either of them complain about who they were. Never once. But often, they shared their excitement in having another day to live with those who they loved and with God on their side.

I am ashamed to confess, that I challenged them on their attitude. How could they live like this? Why would they live like this? Why not go to the city and find a real job, get a real house, and live life? They in turn challenged me: what do you do with all your money? Where is your family and why aren’t they here with you? Why aren’t you smiling all the time? Why do you need to come here to see us in order to see yourself? What, I said to myself? “Why do you need to come here to see us in order to see yourself?” I stopped talking and listened. They had much to say and much to be said. I could do nothing else. Why did I need to go there to see them in order to see myself? Maybe it’s because without them, I see only that what I want to see and that which I’m told to see. I avoid all that is unpleasant, all that is blurry, all that is faded and look only at that which is focused and pleasant. Think about it. In the PICU we see awful things. But many times we look away or add anther layer of paint to the picture in order to hide the sadness. Have you ever look at a dying cancer patient, 12 years old, bald, weak, and pale, and wonder if that was you? Even if we are healthy, do other people see us like that? Weak and pale? It’s all in how we look at ourselves. And once we look at ourselves as being blessed and gifted with our talents, no matter what they may be (even garbage collecting), we feel like we are blessed and gifted. Those 2 old men did. I could see it. I am betting that you can too.

I find it curious that I had such a profound reaction to such a seemingly random encounter with these 2 men. These kind of heart-lifting experiences are few and far between and I hold on to them as close as I can. Some people say that the single most powerful argument against the reality of the love of God is the injustice that some people have when it comes to life. From where I stood, these 2 men got the short end of the stick. They don’t necessarily think so however. It is that very superficial lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to, that stands in the way of seeing that there is at least some good in all that is handed us. For whatever reason, they made me think and realize my faults. I looked at myself and saw what I should have seen, not what I wanted to see. Simply put, when we talk about gifts, charity, and helping others, we should perhaps look at who we are or someone will do it for us.

In all things give thanks,


copyright 2006