In October 2017, I became an uncle for the first time when my older brother and his wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy. In the months since his birth, I have often found myself staring at the books on his shelf and wondering how they will help to shape his mind as he grows and becomes his own person. While most the books on my nephew’s shelf will aid his parents in teaching him morals in some small way, the book that I am most excited to see amongst his collection is Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish.

I’ll explain why I’m thrilled to know that Pfister’s book will be a part of my nephew’s upbringing in a few moments. But before I do, I need to tell you about the good Samaritan, the clergymen, and breakfast in a foreign city…

A few weeks ago, I booked and paid for a last-minute flight to Barcelona after my train from Paris was cancelled unexpectedly.  When I landed, I jumped on a bus and tried to hand the driver a twenty euro note for a fare that cost just over a tenth of that. The driver, unaware that my understanding of his native tongue extends about as far as to being able to order a glass of wine and saying thank you, began hurriedly talking to me and tapping a sign written in multiple languages that explained the bus company accepted exact cash only.

Tired, frustrated, and not sure what to do, I meekly explained in English that I didn’t have exact cash. Unable to understand me, he responded by banging the sign repeatedly and pointing to the sidewalk as if telling me to go find the correct change and wait for the next bus. Biting my tongue and preparing to disembark, I was stopped by a stranger, who despite my protests, paid for my fare before taking a seat and ignoring my offerings of thanks. Had it not have been for this good Samaritan, I’d have been left wandering aimlessly in search of small change in a city I knew almost nothing about.

Nine days later I was over five hundred miles away from Barcelona, standing outside the Vatican, watching as two clergymen dressed in robes stepped over a beggar pleading desperately for help as they made their way into the basilica. The two men chatted between themselves, behaving as though the woman at their feet didn’t exist; their ignorance of her plight exacerbated by the fact that she held a small child in her arms.

And then more recently, I had breakfast in Prague just a short stroll from the Charles Bridge. As I sat at my table, I watched a beggar holding his hands together in prayer as he kneeled with his head down in reverence to people that passed by and refused to acknowledge his existence. Saddened by what I saw, and reminded of the two clergymen in Rome, I finished my meal and walked over to where he was, crouched down, and pushed more than what I had just paid for my own meal into his hands.

At first the man didn’t look up at me, he kept his head down and his eyes averted as though he were somehow beneath me for needing help. But I made a conscious effort to keep my hand buried in his, the money awkwardly trapped between our fingers until he glanced up and our eyes met for the briefest of moments. I didn’t say anything. Nor did he. Apart from the obvious fact that we speak different languages, the few seconds where we held each other’s gaze said more than words ever could. It told him that just because circumstance has treated me far more kindly than it has him in recent years; that doesn’t mean that his existence is less valued than mine in any way.

At least I hope it did.

This man wasn’t the first beggar that I have given money to since I started travelling at the end of April. And he isn’t the last. What makes him special is that my exchange with him was the first time that I felt the need to go beyond merely tossing a few coins into his paper cup. Rather than dismissively part with my small change, I wanted to try my best to instill a little bit of hope inside someone who had hit rock bottom. Because I’ve been where he is, and I know how overwhelming life can feel at times. I mean, I have never been homeless. But if you sift back through the annals of this site it’s pretty clear that two years ago I reached some fucking harrowing lows that I wouldn’t have been able to live through had it not have been for kindness and support of others.

When I was at my lowest point, there were two things that made me feel more isolated and alone than anything else: apathy, and pity. I hated when my attempts to speak out about my depressive mindset were met with indifference; just as I despised when people treated me as though my illness made me pitiful and weak. After watching two clergymen in Rome display such indifference for another human being, and recognizing the patronizing way that I would casually toss the small change I didn’t want to carry around into a beggar’s cup, I decided that I’d try to give people the one thing I had always wished for when I was struggling: hope. And for me in that moment in Prague, the best way that I could think of inspiring hope in the stranger before me was to show him that despite his circumstances, and no matter how screwed up his life may currently be, we are all connected, and we are all equal.


Which brings me back to the Rainbow Fish…

For anyone who has never read Pfister’s book, it tells a cautionary tale about selfishness and vanity in which a fish with beautiful shiny silver scales is alone due to his inability to share with his friends. But with the help of a wise octopus he learns to share, giving a shiny silver scale to each of his friends until despite no longer being the most beautiful fish in the sea, he is happier than he ever was before.

Watching two men dressed in religious garments step over someone on their way to a basilica dripping with gold leaf and filled with priceless artifacts where their religion charges people money to climb a staircase whilst preaching the need for human compassion pissed me off. I have always struggled with the concept of religion. For as long as I can remember I have questioned its place within society. And while I would never disparage an individual’s faith in a higher power, I don’t believe that faith and religion are one in the same.

In the scenario above, the two men who stepped over a beggar pleading for help are more business men than holy men. They don’t give a shit about the plight of the people begging on their doorstep; all they are concerned with is lining their pockets and ensuring that the church’s purse continues to swell. Or, to strip back all pretenses and be completely honest about how I feel: the only God that someone who behaves as they did worships is money and decadence. Which is why I would rather my nephew learn how to treat others from a book about a fish sharing shiny silver scales with his friends than from men dressed in robes with a long outdated view of morality.

At this point it’s worth acknowledging that I’m no saint either…

Whilst I often lament about trying to be a better man, the truth is that I’m an overly confident arsehole when it comes to writing. I have long held the belief that I am one of the best writers of my generation, and that that I could write rings around anyone who dared to challenge me. On top of this, while I have given what I can to help people out over the past few weeks, there has been times when I’ve had nothing to give, or have held onto the coins in my pocket so that I could buy myself a cup of coffee. Hell, just this morning I told a beggar that I had nothing to give him because I was concerned that if I gave up the measly change that I did have, I wouldn’t be able to make it to my train on time.

Which is why I’m not criticizing the fact that the two clergymen mentioned above didn’t reach into their pockets and start showering the woman begging with cash. There’s a chance that they didn’t have any money on them, or an admittedly slimmer one that they’d just given it to a beggar half a block back. What I am calling them out on is their refusal to acknowledge that the person they stepped over is human, and should therefore be treated as such. Because it doesn’t matter whether you are a priest, a beggar, or a writer without the correct change to catch the bus, you are no better than anyone else.

Pfister was on the right path with his analogy that sharing shiny silver scales with those around you will bring you (and them) happiness. Each time that I have given to someone less fortunate and witnessed their smile, I have felt my own world illuminate. But what the author never alluded to was that shiny silver scales, much like the beauty that they represent in his book, vary greatly in shape and design.

Whilst the beggar sitting at the clergymen’s feet, and the man I met in Prague clearly need money to survive; they also need hope, human compassion, and a shoulder to lean on. We can’t all give financial aid. Some of us simply aren’t able to do so, and those that are cannot give to everyone that they see in need of a dollar. But sometimes just a smile, a simple hello, or even just having the common decency not to step over someone less fortunate than you can be enough to brighten their day. I understand that in the case of those living on the street, those actions won’t put a roof over their head, or food in their stomach, but they may just provide that tiny ray of hope that they need to keep searching for a better tomorrow.

When my nephew grows into a toddler and begins to understand the stories that are imparted upon him, I hope that he takes a special interest in The Rainbow Fish. I hope that the story makes him smile as much as I did when I first heard it as a child. And I hope that as he grows into a man he realizes that just like the book’s namesake, he too has been adorned with shiny scales that he can share with those around him to create a better world.

I hope that he shares his smile with everyone that he meets, regardless of their current circumstance. I hope that he accepts other cultures and becomes a shoulder to lean in his friends and family’s times of need. And that like his uncle with his writing, he understands that he can believe himself to have individual traits that are superior to his peers, but that doing so in no way diminishes the importance of their lives, thoughts and feelings. And more than anything, I hope that if he ever passes a beggar in the street, he tries his best to give them a dollar, or a smile, or a little piece of hope. And that he never becomes the kind of arsehole who steps over those less fortunate than he is.

Author: Chris Nicholas

Chris Nicholas is an author from Brisbane, Australia. He has published two novels, and is currently working on his third.

120 thoughts on “Beggars”

  1. I like to say that I am cash poor and rich in love. I’ll never forget the look on a young woman’s face… it was winter here in Alaska, I was going in to the laundromat to take a shower and outside the door sat a teenaged-girl. Homeless. Looked to be coming down off of something. She was very pretty and had gorgeous teal blue spiky hair. I paused, compassion in my heart. Standing there until she looked up into my eyes and I smiled and said, “you are beautiful and I love your hair.” Her eyes, they changed and she smiled back. While my words did nothing to change her situation, it changed that moment in time for her. I had nothing else to give her. But that look, that touching of another soul, is why I tell people, strangers and friends alike, that they are beautiful or special or wonderful or whatever it is that I feel for them. One small phrase or look, like passing cash to the beggar but waiting for the eye contact, the touch of a hand…. can make all the difference in the world. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. People beg for many different reasons. People are homeless or live on the streets through, perhaps, fault of their own and via circumstances beyond their control. To hold a hand or pay a compliment to the disenfranchised can be a greater gift than money.

  2. Congrats on being uncle mate. I get my chance in august with my oldest brothers first, a baby girl is due 5 August. Sadly I will be 10 000 km away when it happens.

  3. Acknowledgement is something we as humans need, crave even. My older sister chastised me once about being too eager to say hello, smile, or even stop and have a chat with someone on the street I don’t know. I wondered why I’m so eager to do so myself. Then it came to me, I don’t look down. This frequently puts me in the eyeline of other people. They may be old, young, possibly rich, or presumably poor, but people [human beings just like me] nonetheless. I acknowledge that, and them. Case closed!!!

  4. I need to read the book and I get what your saying 100% but I’m curious- if the fish gives his scales away one by one doesn’t he die bc he’s picking his skin off? Or do the scales Re-grow as he sheds them? (Not to sound stupid)

    1. That’s my big question too. I don’t find it healthy to give away pieces of yourself like the fish does with its own scales. I love the message about generosity, but I am very afraid it doesn’t mention self-care.

  5. The Rainbow Fish, I remember that book. It was a book I read in school. One lesson that my parents instilled in my siblings and I was that no one is better than another, that the CEO of a major corporation is no better than the janitor that cleans the Elementary school, that we were no better than the homeless person on the corner of the street. Anytime I come across someone in need I try to help in some way, be it a few dollars, food, a bottle of water or an exchange of smiles. The small acts of acknowledgement, of helping a fellow human in their low moments. Too many of us have become eluded with believing that we are better than others. It pisses me off when I see someone belittling another. To see their spirit be diminished by hurtful words or plain ignorance is disheartening. I admit, I have my moments of cockiness when it comes to my writing and a few other aspects in life, but I would never make another human feel worthless, I know all too well what that feels like. While I have never experienced what they have physically, I resonate with them on that mental level. Life with a physical disorder has taught me two major lessons; firstly, that we are all born into this world with some obstacle(be it mental, physical or emotional) no one is perfect. Secondly, learn when to bite your tongue and when to let it loose. Kindness, compassion and a shoulder to lean on, I wish more people practiced those instead of their jerk skills.

  6. I heard a man preach – he talked of charity. He said much the same as you have said: that what is really important is to give the unfortunate your time. Listen to them. Make them feel valued. I like your post. I too am often an arrogant arsehole despite trying very hard not to be. He ho: I never claimed to be the Dalai Lama but often wish I was!

  7. ” The two men chatted between themselves, behaving as though the woman at their feet didn’t exist;”

    From what you describe they treated her like a piece of uneven pavement. I think there is always a problem when people start treating other people like things.

    PS: I only just started following your blog. You write well!

  8. Having lived 15 years in Central and South America, the situations you describe are very familiar to me. Poverty is a dreadful thing that far too many people in the world has to live with, yet goverment officials stuff millions in their pockets and ignore poverty as “someone else’s problem .

  9. That seems like a good book for beginners. I hope your nephew would learn compassion too in the future and love for his neighbors. Lovely insight Chris!

  10. I love everything about this post. I also agree that faith and religion don’t need to be mutually exclusive of each other. Sometimes human kindness and compassion can be just as nurturing to the soul as a few coins.

  11. A great one, Chris. And what you did to/for that beggar in Prague is worth all the gold in the world. Thank you, too, for visiting my blog. Will make time to read more of yours.

  12. Whatever the state of mind (or life) people deserve to be treated with dignity. Even those robed clergy could have offered prayer. People set examples every second. Thanks, too for visiting my blog.

  13. One of the many things my traveling has taught me is that I learn more from backpackers on a bus than I did in umpteen years in school. I have also learned that all of my efforts to become somebody have impressed nobody. I have finally learned that compassion and listening are far more valuable that demanding and preaching.
    Those of us that have been given the gift to see have been given the greatest blessing.
    Good on you for your graduation 🙂

  14. I appreciate a bold, personal, yet insightful post. I can relate to your preference of the fish book over organized religion as we get our morals from society and not religion anyway.

  15. You poignantly remind readers that what we all are looking for is not only to love and be loved, it is to understand and be understood — to be recognized.

    Safe travels!

  16. Thank you for the beautiful post. I have seen beggars also in the streets of foreign cities. So many of the people live there and acknowledge their existence by remarking that is what they do for a living. I am so glad you stopped. We are all beggars in one way or another!

  17. Here’s a “shinny scale.” 🙂 I love reading stories, particularly from people who travel. Hope gives so much to a person! You are so right, we can all give a kind word or smile to people we see on the street. Even in my small town in Georgia, USA, we have people who are homeless, people who need help and a glimmer of hope. Once such man I passed the other day with my daughter. People in our town stand at major intersections usually with a sign announcing they are out of work, or homeless. I feel we must always give them the benefit of doubt. Everyone has a story. This guy looked beat down, ready to give up. You could tell he had lived out in the open for some time as he looked weather worn and dirty. He reminded of my recently departed brother who was an alcoholic and for most of adult life, homeless. He tried to live with me a few times, but his chaotic way of life affected my children and I couldn’t live like that. I helped him as much as I could, but ultimately he sadly was never able to pull himself together or even admit he had a problem. He was a talented artist, though he never believed as much himself. As our car aligned with the homeless man that day, my daughter rolled down her window and handed him a cold bottle of water. I had a 20 dollar bill in the glove compartment I keep for emergencies. My daughter reached out to hand it to him. He accepted with a smile. We smiled back. As I made eye contact with him, his eyes burned into my memory. I think of him from time to time and wonder, what was his name? How did he come to be there at the intersection needing help? I’ll never know, but I send out positive vibes to him and offer up thoughts to the universe that maybe his circumstances will change for the better. Although, I know action in our local communities is the best antidote for him and others like him. I am careful to understand that it could be me beside the road given a certain set of circumstances. Peace to you!

  18. I haven’t heard of the book but the more one views the Catholic church, the worse it seems to be as an institution. It has an operating budget in the US alone that is more than Apple’s is worldwide yet there are people who need help that are ignored. It is truly shocking.

  19. Rainbow Fish is one of the set texts for Reception kids (4-5 yo) at my daughters’ school. Seems to have had a similar effect, as they always want to give something to the homeless people they see. Maybe it should be required reading for everyone!

  20. Rainbow Fish, along with The Giving Tree, were two books I purchased this past November for my brand new grandson. He’s only 7 months old one day when he’s a tad older and hungry for words, I’ll spoon it in like a jar of baby food for the soul.

    Great message!

  21. Thank you . . .for two things: for reading on my site, and for writing and publishing this insightful, important piece. God help us all. Help us to reach, to touch, to feel. Am now following your blog.

  22. Thank you for visiting my blog and liking my post. I’m glad you did, because it brought me here. Such an insightful post, beautifully described. It’s an important lesson to realize how our seemingly insignificant actions can be significant for another person. And that no one person stands above another. Thank you for writing this!

  23. Love this! I know someone with a similar story to yours and when his life turned around, he chose to treat those in need with the same indifference he had received in the past. While I understood his choices, I tried to explain to him that he was only continuing their cycle. Those who were unkind to him during his plight may have been products of similar circumstances themselves; consequently creating a chain of negativity. Thank you for breaking the chain.

  24. It’s beautiful to read that someone else struggles with the “business of religion” and so eloquently too. A wise man once said “man is a storytelling animal” and in the telling of your truth you show great insight. You also demonstrate the rare gift of seeing the connections that others miss.

    For me it was Jonathon Livingston Seagull which led to new ways of thinking. An old tale but a useful one and there are many others I’ve added to the brain over the years. Keep writing as you have a great gift and I look forward to exploring your work further.

  25. Hello there!

    I’ve read your post a few days ago, but just now find the energy to respond to it.

    What you wrote I’ve experienced as well, although on a smaller scale, if you like.
    A few years ago when I was on my was home from the gym on foot, I was maybe 10-15m away from the road that I had to cross when I saw a frail middle aged gent with a walking cane topple over on his back, unable to get back up, on the other side.

    Just a few paces behind him walked a smug looking chap, in his early 20’s. He walked right past the fallen gent without so much as a glance. He crossed the street and came towards me.

    When I saw he made no effort to help the poor man, though still exhausted and sore from the gym, I picked up the pace to come to the gentleman’s aid.
    As the young chap came into chatting distance I yelled at him to help the other, but he just widely grinned and passed me as I, now running, crossed the street, worried the gent may need an ambulance.

    Meanwhile, a car with two women in their 40’s or 50’s had pulled up at the junction and rather than helping or driving off despite the roads being deserted, just stood there and watched on. Only when I passed their car and they saw me go straight for the man on his back, did they bother getting their pampered rears out of their car.

    When I reached the man he was draped in a cloud of vodka and other stuff, yet he was kind and thankful for my help, even embarrassed. I offered to call an ambulance or acompany him home since he went up the paralell road to where my appartment is.
    He refused, however, and when the two women approached and offered to give him a ride, he refused as well.
    So there wasn’t much we could do but dust him off and make sure he was able to stay on his feet.

    I was furious about what had happened, but felt also extremely helpless as I can neither make arrogant folk like that chap help others, nor can I make people accept help they don’t want.

    This experience and what you mentioned is part of the reasons why I don’t want to have anything to do with people and society.
    Should I ever win the lottery, I’ll find me a Friday and buy a deserted island..

  26. Love this post!
    Being kind and compassionate costs absolutely nothing.
    Religion is all about rules and legalism. Faith is about a relationship with God. Two totally different things.
    I look forward to finding a copy of the Rainbow Fish.
    Blessings on your journeys.

  27. There is a whole Bible story about this exact thing, with the priests stepping around a man who was robbed and beaten. I’ve never actually seen it play out so blatantly though. That’s a disturbing moment, and your points here were well made.

  28. You have a wonderful way of writing and the point about faith and religion is bang on. I just read the rainbow fish story but I am afraid it evoked completely different emotions in me. I saw it more as a way of how we are forced to blend in, give up on our individuality be like them to be accepted. But that’s just probably me.

  29. What a great story! The way you circled from being helped to helping others really shows depth of character. I really have a difficult time with people who feel as if they are above others somehow–as if they can just step over someone, as you discussed. Well put!

  30. Compassion! That is what life is about… and yes, there is a huge difference between faith and religion! Jesus said the same when he spoke to an “expert in the law” who asked him about life (Luke chapter 10). He said we are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourself and then followed with the story of the “Good Samaritan” to show him what that actually looks like… It echoes your own words and experiences.

  31. In reference to Barcelona bus fare: When traveling outside of the USA, I have always found that someone showed up when I needed them. I am fully confident traveling alone knowing this will always happen. Good post. thanks for reading mine, too.

  32. First up, thanks for the like, they’re always encouraging.
    Have you read Flinders’ Cat by Bryce Courtney? A story all about Down isn’t Out!
    In Maori mythology there’s a tale of similar meaning to the rainbow fish (sort of, at least the underlying moral is the same) about how the birds became what they are today.
    Tane, god of the forest, was devastated, because at night all these insects would emerge from holes in the ground and devour the forest, so he went to his friends (the birds) and asked who would come down to the ground at night to control the insects? Asking all the birds in turn, each explained why they couldn’t possibly do that. Now kiwi was a dandy, feathers of every colour so bright that when the sun struck them the other birds were dazzled, vain and arrogant in his finery kiwi considered himself far above all the other birds. Still after all the other birds had refused Tane, kiwi said “I will, I will come and walk on the ground for you” Bit of a bum deal as Tane then stripped him of his fine feathers replacing them with drab ones and took away his wings so that he would not be tempted to return to the trees, and made his eyes weak and sensitive to sunlight so that he would not be tempted to come out in the daytime, but he also gave kiwi powerful legs and stretched his beak so that he could find the fattest worms. To all the other birds he gave some of kiwi’s old feathers as a mark of their shame and altered their form so that they would have to live according to their excuses while working hard for their daily food.
    Most of us are regular birds, we struggle to make that supreme sacrifice and a very few are kiwis giving up all they have to follow a selfless path.

  33. Thanks for stopping by and liking my post. I thought I would give a personal touch to fellow bloggers who like what I post. I read the Beggars to get the “feel” and thought your commentary to be very expressive; pathos is a strong emotion and keeps us humble.

  34. Thanks for the like, I’ve had occasion to live rough, I think people have a tendacy to think the destitute resent the passer by but it’s more self than external loathing. The gift of money, kindness and a look are dificult to replicate when you’re not poor such is thier worth when you have nothing but darkness in you.

  35. Wonderful story. I agree with your message. I too make it a point to demonstrate empathy and compassion – we are the same and we are each on a journey, the protagonist in our own story. Definately agree that religion and faith are not interchangeable. Looking forward to reading more. All the best.

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