“Give until it hurts.”
– The Dalai Lama
Once upon a time, I was a Perfume Girl. You know those chicks who stand in the cosmetic section of department stores, all dressed up and smiley, asking if you’d like a spritz of the latest sniffy le fou fou? That was me. In heels and shoulder pads.
Everyday on my way to work, I’d see the same street busker outside the turnstile door playing for coins. He was absolutely gorgeous. Tall, and dark, soft brown Stag eyes. Think: willowy Hugh Jackman. He was ooo la la Parisian. He played the accordion and sang Edith Piaf in a white blousan and worn out sneakers.
And he also wore…a clown nose.
The dignity. The humility. It broke my heart.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him, but I could hardly look at him. And so I never tossed him so much as a nickel. All those days. Five days a week. I just watched the tourists and little kids walk up and drop money in his purple velvet-lined instrument case.
I wondered how his life had come to this –- singing for change in front of The Hudson’s Bay department store. And I then read about him in the community newspaper. His name was Marc. “I hope to be able to make nice Christmas for my family.” (Not so perfect English.)
He had a family. He really needed those tossed coins.
Before each payday I was usually down to my last ten bucks, just enough for a burrito and bus fare to work. One day, I finally mustered myself and clip clipped quickly up to his accordion case. In a silly flurry I dropped in a fiver and kept walking. Then I made a sharp turn into the nearest alley, buried my face in my purse, and sobbed.
I felt complicit in his humiliation. I felt ashamed of how many times I’d walked by without looking him in the eyes. I felt poor.
But I got what I needed to get in that flood of shame. I saw that sometimes we resist The Give, because it hurts to meet the other in their place of need and suffering.
Generosity insists that you meet people where they are. This requires some courage, like all forms of intimacy.
From that moment on I stopped circling the pain I saw. Instead, I let my curiosity pull me closer to it. And when I moved toward it, I found the riches of compassion.