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.
120 thoughts on “Beggars”
“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.”
Wonderful meaningful words; Thanks CN.
Very true. We often forget we are all part of the same us.
And you are a very good writer if I may say so.
Your piece made me ponder and feel.
Amazing, heartfelt post, Chris. I know what you mean about the Vatican. I did the tour around it and was pretty disgusted at the inequity of wealth globally. My goodness (God-ness), one of those paintings or other works of art which are housed there could be sold to help hunger around the world! I believe we are all interconnected and that we should be aim to love everyone as we do our close family. I know, that’s a toughie, but I’m a work in progress. Great writing, Anita.
bravo . . . I don’t know if you are the best writer on the net, but you are probably in the running to be . . .and you damn sure get your point across in a very meaningful way
Love the entity story!! I completely agree with your views on religion. Your writing is awesome and the message of giving is powerful!
Enjoyed this post; beautifully written. Keep writing!
Amazing work! I’m looking forward to the next post. Keep up the good work.
I had to stop everything I was doing to finish reading this. This is one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking pieces I’ve ever read, in part because it details some of my feelings in religion. I’ve often tried to get people to understand the difference between faith and belief and religion. There are good and bad souls everywhere, despite what they claim to be. I only have a particular children’s book (Dr. Seuss) that I believe are words to live by. Because I can’t help but quote Star Wars: “Rebellions are built on hope.” You sound like the most beautiful arsehole I’ve had the pleasure of passing words with.
You’re a great writer.. long writes often lose my attention… your every word was just a tease to get to the next and each line had me hooked with gladness to read just a simple humanity being threaded through your story and thoughts…
I will be investing in your book!
I remember reading Rainbow Fish to my girls when they were little. Beautiful story. I also remember when I decided to no longer take them to church for reasons very similar to what you mentioned in your post. I grew concerned that as they were more immersed in the youth group, they would be trained to see other people through a judgmental lense instead of finding the good in people regardless of how they might choose to live their lives. I just want my kids to love people and to see them as human beings. Because of this, I was really touched by the experiences you shared.
Some lovely, heartfelt reflections Chris, thank you. We all have our individual experiences, and they are all we have to form our world views. For me many of the kindest sweetest people I have known have been Priests and Nuns. When you look at the paintings and statues and gold leaf in the Vatican try also to remember the fact that the Church does far, far more than its share of charity work in the world. In fact, the disproportion in the amount it does compared to other religions and Governments is enormous., truly and really, totally, mindblowingly enormous. My respect for them is great but yes, even then, I wish those two priests had done more for that poor beggar woman.
This is a beautiful post. Thanks for stopping by my blog and I’m so happy to have found your voice. Keep up the great writing.
Wonderful, thought-provoking post. I, too, don’t have much use for organized religion. It’s big business at its worst. You will make each of us search our souls with this post. Thanks.
Thank you for ll the silver scales that you have shared with this piece of writing. It is a very strong piece. Well done and thank you for experiences well shared.
A little humanity and common decency goes a long way and we certainly need more of it in the world.
Thanks for sharing – great post!
This has got to be one of the most honest, empathetic and inspiring posts I’ve read. Thank you for sharing🙏🏻
There is power in words. And yours, especially. I often incorporate my father’s stories into my writing, and one, that still amazes me, is how he lived as a beggar early in his life during war-torn times in Paris. He was the most generous man I’ve ever known. This connection alone has turned my heart toward any request for aid – beggar or not. And you clearly share in this humaneness. Thank you for your beautifully crafted post.
Good one Chris!
Lovely. “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another…”
John 15: something? I happen to be a newbie blogger AND a newbie Catholic… your comment made me smile. 🙂
This is a splendid piece of writing and very compassionate,
Great piece; vividly told story. Fantastic!
I was at a Bible study recently when the topic of ‘giving’ came up. Most (or all – not sure) of the people there are ‘well-to-do’, though not ‘rich’. I was surprised (sort of) to hear from all of them that they don’t think giving is always okay. They use the excuse that many of the people begging (here in the USA) will just spend the money on alcohol or drugs. This is then used as an excuse to do nothing. The excuse may be true, but does that really justify not sharing with the people and not acknowledging their existence.
Take a look at a situation in Yeshua’s (Jesus’) life. One of his main 12 followers (his ‘disciples’) was called Judas Iscariot (called thus in most English translations, but it’s not a very good transliteration). This Judas is the one that betrayed him, directly leading to his crucifixion and death. The story makes clear that Yeshua knew Judas would be the one that betrayed him, yet Yeshua treated him at all times with kindness and respect, and even gave him honor at ‘the last supper.’ Oh, and Judas was the money holder for the group.
So, for me, when I go by someone asking for money, I try to give a little, and I thank God that I am in a position where I can give. I don’t know what the person will do with the money, but that isn’t my concern then. If ‘all’ I can do to help is give a bit, then I count myself fortunate that I can give. I also often take a couple extra seconds just to meet their eyes, acknowledging them as a fellow human.
I hope no one who has read your post will from then on just ‘walk on by’ someone without at least meeting their eyes and acknowledging their humanity.
As a Christian I hope that you don’t tar us all with the same brush. As you pointed out yourself, you did not know the circumstances of the Priests, anymore than you did the beggar, but I just pray along with you that none of us get complacent to each other. “Only Connect”: Hemmingway
Another thought-provoking piece, Chris. Thank you for sharing a part of your mind, it helped me gain positive perspective about life, as always.
Interesting read – as a Christian I try and leave the judgement up to him
Upstairs but it’s really hard – especially now I’m working for the church!
We truly live in a world where the needy go unnoticed and truthfully, we are all needy. It does not have to be money that we share – a kind word, getting to know the clerks at the grocery store you frequent, or a smile for someone you pass on the street. Simply an acknowledgement that they are noticed and they matter. My favorite kind of giving is anonymously especially because I have Autism and social is a challenge for me. What do I say? For the homeless, I found someone who serves them to give the offering and after careful thought to their plight in winter, I came up with a warm scarf that was light weight, fit nicely into their pocket, stayed nestled around their neck without fuss, and sewed enough for the dozen who live under a bridge. The contemplative time thinking about their needs and sewing brought me close to them though we have never met. I may have little monetarily to give as it is already supporting family in great need but I can still reach out in small ways keeping me thinking beyond my old troubled world. It puts things in perspective in my own life and brings peace to my often troubled mind. Thank you for eloquently reminding us that the world is larger than ourselves.
Giving anonymously – the highest form of charity, and the form that lets those that receive it maintain their dignity.
Great comment easylivingthehardway!
Reblogged this on eclectic haze and commented:
and the healing begins
Extending compassion and dignity are free. Awesome piece of writing sir.
I understand how you felt about those clergymen. A shame And sadness.
Hope is so important. I always say that there is a fine line between “having” and “not having”. Tomorrow it could be us not having.
Its true what they say, ” do not look down on someone unless you are helping them up.
I think that if more people, regardless of their status, would take a view similar to yours regarding the destitute, I truly believe that this world would be a better place. Some things you stated really stood out to me; not just what you said about others, but also about yourself: how we perceive others, how we too must often rely on others, and how we judge ourselves.
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.
…harrowing lows that I wouldn’t have been able to live through had it not have been for kindness and support of others.
I decided that I’d try to give people the one thing I had always wished for when I was struggling: hope.
…you are no better than anyone else.
…may just provide that tiny ray of hope that they need to keep searching for a better tomorrow.
…I’m not criticizing the fact that the two clergymen mentioned above didn’t reach into their pockets…there’s a chance that they didn’t have any money on them, or…they’d just given it to a beggar half a block back.
I went through a period of time where I refused to give any money to the homeless because I had become calloused to the seemingly ubiquitous presence of fake beggars. I have since had a change of heart. Your article is an encouragement to me to always do the right thing. I have written about my circumstances in my blog on finances. With your permission, I’d like to update it by adding a few of your quotes.
Enjoy your writing. Keep up the good work.
One may be excused for not giving a beggar anything because one may not have anything at that point in time. (Except one can perform miracle like Apostle Peter, who encountered a beggar and said to him, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Acts 3:6 – and he made the lame beggar walk!).
But it is inexcusable not to accord someone some respect just because he or she is less fortunate than we are. I once read a story that a beggar said the thing that saddens him most is not getting alms from people but people not acknowledging him. Since then I have learnt to ‘acknowledge’ beggars even in those times I didn’t have anything to give them.
Wonderful post! It will be reblogged tomorrow.
My favorite quote from your article:
“I don’t believe that faith and religion are one in the same.”
As a Christian and a pastor, I couldn’t agree more! Those clothed in religious garb, ignoring the poor, also pisses me off. Frankly, Jesus was also angered by them and He condemned their practices.
Thanks for sharing your journey 😊.
You are an extremely talented writer. I could read for hours. Keep pushing forward for the world is a better place with writers like You.
I started my blog in Hope’s that someone will find it and not feel so alone with their grieving process. That they have someone out there that can relate. I sometimes also look at my views and see that I have barely any and get sad about it too. Thank you for this post because it gives me hope that someday it will reach a ton of people who need it to relate to.
I started my blog with hopes that someone could relate and not feel as alone as I’ve felt through the grieving process. Sometimes when I look at my views it just makes me feel worse. Thank you for this post because it gave me that push to just keep posting. Hopefully someday it will reach as much people as yours and help others the way I intend it to.
Like your thoughts and analogy.. Great writing! Makes me think.. Thank you
Damn, I am uncle of 5. But I use to meet only 2 girls that I am so proud of. They are so inteligent for their age. I just hope that my kids will stand out too🤷♀️
I always wonder if I could ever talk to someone about my views on the destitute. They really deserve hope. So touched to see this post. Feel a little ashamed that I avoided physical contact while I gave the money to the panhandlers. Some people might say it’s not an effective way to change the whole system, but I know for sure it makes a difference for that particular human being.
Wow! You are a very powerful writer who has given me a lot to think about. Thanks!
You have learned a lesson. The disregard for the beggars by the religious outside the Vatican has gone on for decades upon decades. Concentrate on the fact that you are not the only one who has helped the beggars and that gift has gone on for decades and decades by other compassionate souls.
You must not confuse “religion” w/ a relationship w/ God. He longs to have that w/ all His children, beggars included. Those who miss the opportunity are the real beggars. ❤
Dear Chris — I discovered your lovely site when you liked one of my posts. I thank you for your kindness and attention, but also — now — for your call to kindness. You are so right: a smile, a few words, an acknowledgment of common humanity are readily available to all of us. I’m that lady who makes eye contact with beggars and passersby on city streets. You call others to join us. A world away, I salute you.
It is funny how fate has brought me to this post of yours. You recently liked something I posted on my blog and being as curious as I am, I visited your site and this phrase Rainbow Fish caught my eye that I decided to read the post. I have just posted a rant on social media about Catholic schools saying that you ned to give up your riches in order to go to heaven and helping the poor, etc. Most know that a catholic school education is one of the best. How come Catholic schools cost so much? Why don’t they have education programs for the poor? How come they do not have programs to alleviate poverty with all the resources they have except for dumb feeding programs that does not even constitute help but just a means to an end. Your nephew is lucky to have you so he can learn kindness, empathy and compassion. I truly think this is what we should start teaching the young ones today instead of being geniuses without hearts.
This reasonated with me as a child I love the little foil covered rainbow fish and thought he was so special. This was really good keep it up.
Beautifully expressed and an apt title. Keep writing.