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.