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Better To Give Than To Receive?

This true story took place in 1994 in Greece while I was a visiting professor at the University of Crete in Iraklio.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was a bright Mediterranean blue and I had already prepared my notes for my afternoon chemistry class.

The previous weekend we had been in Argiroupoli and again I had spent time looking around in the basement and finding precious sweet objects, bringing back to me all those unforgettable childhood memories. There in a corner I had found the acetylene lamp made of bronze that my father used to turn on every night to be able to do his work as a shoemaker. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh I remembered him pumping air into the kerosene container of the loux (Coleman) lantern and slowly the familiar continuous noise …shshshshshsh…would increase in intensity, as did the brightness. It was clothed in at least 30 years of dust, but after proper cleaning, it looked like new.

To make it work I would have to find quite a few parts. I had brought it to Chania while we were there but I could not find every missing part. Then I had brought it to Rethymno and while downtown, I had discovered a beautiful Cretan character, whose spontaneous response to my predicament I cannot forget. He looked at it while I was holding it and exclaimed in his pure ancient Cretan dialect, “What the devil is wrong with it?!” Well, he could not fix it either because he did not have the parts. And so I had brought it to Iraklio with the hope that by taking it to a larger city, I might be lucky enough to see it working again.

I thought today was a good day to be outside so I decided to take it downtown to see if I would be lucky this time. This day was like any other day, sitting in the bus watching the city go by until I found myself walking in downtown Iraklio. But little did I know that today I would learn something that I had never thought of before.

There at the side of the road was a young man, about twenty years old, sitting on the ground begging for help. People were passing by in a hurry. Some of them would throw a few drachmas in his basket, while some others were more considerate and more patient, bending down and placing the coins gently. The majority just ignored the scene, moving on with their chores. I stood from afar watching as all this was happening. I felt compassion for him and I decided to approach him. Standing next to him, I realized that his body was completely deformed from birth. I had no intention of putting anything in his basket. I just wanted to talk with him. At that moment a thought came to me. What would my colleagues and students think if they saw me talking with a beggar? Didn’t I have something better to do? Write a new chemistry book? Correct papers?

My desire to talk with him became irresistible and I felt the urgency to experience his pain and thoughts. All other thoughts vanished like a cloud blown away by a mighty wind. By conversing with him I found out that he was from northern Greece and that he had come with his mother to Crete because it was easier to make ends meet. He had to drag his body on the ground to reach the bus station in order to go home. His mother was cleaning houses all day long in the city. He told me that the police would often tell him to move to a different sidewalk. He could not choose his place. He said he could understand that because many people were complaining to the police that his presence there was not good for the tourism industry. Many policemen were very gentle, he said, but some of them were very harsh and demanding. Some of them had even struck and threatened him.

This fellow had a childish heart. He had a religious character, believing in many traditions that I would consider preposterous, but underneath I could see a pure heart with no anger, no anxiety, and no bitterness resulting from his situation or for any other reason. In a world full of people with whole bodies but with crippled spirits and minds, I thought what a marvelous thing it was that here was a man with a deformed body, if you could even call it a body, with tranquility and wisdom abiding in him.

As the discussion went on, all thoughts about who might be watching me were absent. I felt like inviting him to have lunch with me. I proposed that we go to a restaurant across the street to dine. I was not interested anymore in who would see me. At my suggestion, he reached in his basket, took some drachmas, and put them into my hand. “Today,” he said, “I will buy you lunch. Tha se keraso.” I was stunned. I did not know what to say for a moment.

I collected my thoughts and murmured, “No, no, I will pay for it.” At the same instant a thought came to my mind, “Here I am in the center of downtown Iraklio, the chemistry professor known by hundreds of students and dozens of professors, and I am taking money from a street beggar to buy my lunch? Money that others put in his basket for him a few minutes ago.” Eternity rolled through my mind and I wished there were no time in existence.

Looking at him again, I felt as though he were my brother and I could feel his desire. His desire was to pay for our lunch and for us to enjoy it together, right there, in companionship on the sidewalk, in public. With me, the chemistry teacher with a clear mind, the scientist who could have just put a few drachmas in his basket and be done with it from the beginning. He had no worries about what my acquaintances might say the next day at the university or what my relatives in Rethymno would say the next weekend if they had seen me.

I looked at him. He had a childish smile on his face, trusting that I would comply with his request. I could clearly see that what he really wanted more than coins was some human companionship, just like all the people walking by him. Instead he had been despised and ignored by most passers-by as some sort of outcast. I could not wait any longer. I instantly felt his joy and I couldn’t wait to walk across the street to fulfill his request.

I felt so lucky to have been able to have such a revelation that day. He was a true gift to my life. The words of my model teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, became so real to me: “To give pleasure to a single heart by a single act is better than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” The silent teacher within me had taught me a new lesson once again: Sometimes it is better to receive than to give.

January 23, 1999

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