On a sidewalk in Delhi, I passed a man with no hands. His toes were also eaten away by leprosy. A small plastic bowl sat in front of him. He hunched as I passed, begging for a few coins. I shuffled past and tried to forget him. Ten minutes later I exited a clothing shop and was seized by a gaunt woman with dark brown skin, holding a baby. ìChapatiî, she groaned and pawed at my arm (Chapati is an Indian bread). ìChapati.....milk. My baby needs milkî, her voice quivered and seemed to stick in my chest. I shook my head vigorously, sloughed her off, and sped away.
Fifty paces later, two children, perhaps six years old, spied me and approached. ìChapati, chapati, chapatiî, they chirped. Their eyes were wide as they tugged my shirt. ìNoî, I barked and picked up my pace. I turned the corner and leapt into the entrance of my guest house... the two children in pursuit. Their voices faded as I ran up the stairs to my room, ìChapati, chapati,..... chapati......î.
In Bangkok, Thailand I regularly pass a guy I call ìthe crying manî. He is a beggar near the internet shop I use. Most days he sits on the sidewalk with a steel cup. Most days he is crying uncontrollably. His face is potmarked and patchy..... tears wet his cheeks. The corners of his mouth are downturned and his expression is always one of despair and agony. He rocks back and forth when I approach, bows his head to the sidewalk, and extends the cup.
At first I was horrified. What a terrible picture of suffering he presents. But I never gave him money. Always I bowed my head and rushed by him. The more I saw him, the more excuses I made. ìMaybe heís actingî, I thought, ìHow could he cry like that every day for a year?î
A block away from the crying manís haunt, another regular camps out. I call him the little man because he is very short and stout. He stinks horribly-- like decayed feces and urine. He has no shirt and his skin is marked by boils, lesions, and scabs. He wears blackened pants that were once khaki. His teeth are likewise blackened. He always smiles when I pass, cluthes his bottle with one hand, and extends the other. Usually, I stroll past.
One night in Athens, GA, USA a man with a red baseball cap approached as I strolled by. ìHey man, can I ask you a favorî, he said. ìUh, sureî, I nodded. He launched into a long story-- his car ran out of gas, his wife and two kids were waiting in the car for him, etc., etc. ìCan you spare a dollar or two to help me out?î I reached into my pocket, felt the five dollar bill I had, and said, ìSorry, I donít have any changeî. I walked on, then glanced back to see him approach another guy with the same story. I chuckled.
This has been a consistent pattern with me. I often rush past the most desperate suffering souls. In India it was particlularly horrible. I felt constantly under assault from agonized human beings: starving mothers, lepers, malnourished babies, ragged children,... even emaciated puppies. Faced with this parade of horrors I chose to harden. I brushed aside anyone who approached me. I refused to make eye contact with beggars on the streets. I developed a technique I called ìthe dismissalî... a brisk stroll, a breaking of eye contact, a wobble of the head, and a wave of the hand. Its a technique I learned from middle class Indians I observed in the markets. It worked wonderfully. Before learning this technique, beggars hounded me for blocks. They saw sympathy and sadness in my eyes. They knew they were getting to me. And so they kept at it. The stress ruined my health.
After two weeks in India I collapsed in front of Jodhpur Fort and was rushed to a local hospital. I was severely dehydrated, suffering from disentary, exhausted, and sleep deprived. I spent four days in bed, hooked to IVs. While the diagnosis was disentary, I knew that it was stress, more than any other factor, that had weakened my body. I knew I had to find a way to deal with the beggars or I would never survive the remaining two months of my trip. ìThe dismissalî saved me. I considered it a clever adaptation at the time... a sign of strength, a sign that I was becoming a veteran traveller. When other backpackers complained about poor people, I lectured them on ìthe dismissalî. ìYou canít let them know they are getting to you or they will never leave you aloneî, I said.
A few years later, while living in my van in Athens, I witnessed ìthe dismissalî from an altogether different perspective. This time I was ìhomelessî, though voluntarily. I developed a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the homeless denizens of Athens and learned some of their stories. I tasted a touch of their suffering. I experienced real hunger for the first time in my life.
From this perspective, ìthe dismissalî didnít seem very clever. From this perspective I recognized it for what it is- an escape mechanism.... a denial of human suffering... a denial of human brotherhood/sisterhood. I saw scrubbed college students give the dismissal to blackclad street kids. I saw suited women dismiss black men. I saw bearded professors dismiss buskers. I saw soccer moms dismiss filthy, ragged men.
From this perspective, I realized it was the dismissal itself that was most damaging. Not the stinginess. Not the fear. Not the judgement. Not the discomfort.... But the complete dismissal of a human life-- the refusal to acknowledge even their barest worth and dignity as human beings. The dismissal was a technique for erasing people... for pretending that they did not exist and therefore need not trouble us.
The dismissal is at the very heart of the problem. If we can brush aside the dignity and suffering of these people, we can forget about them. They need not stress us or keep us awake at night. They need not ruin our good time on the town. They need not disturb our power lunches and shopping sprees. And, of course, they need not drain our tax dollars with pleas for housing, food, and medical care.
A host of demands can be brushed aside with the dismissal. A host of disturbing realities can be denied. It is a powerful technique, indeed.