Filling My Empty Hands with Possibility

If there was one singular event to have opened my eyes to such a thing as actual ethical responsibility, it must have been September 11. That September 11 that I saw people, one after another, jump out of a skyscraper, because the building was on fire and about to collapse, as a result of purposeful action, targeted. Those images went through me as chariots of fiery morality, and left me with the thorough understanding that things need to change – not in concepts, not with words that lack conviction, not in principle but in reality. In the light of something of this magnitude the significance of every conflict in my direct surroundings paled, and I saw in this a delicate cohesion: the images appeared to me to be the shape of the epitome-, the end point in a circle of aggression and of hate, a moment of culmination for an endless chain of causes and effects, wherein all of us participate. A circle wherein I had thoughtlessly gone round up to this point, unwittingly, unaware, but which was omnipresent at that moment. There was no escaping it and hence the urgency to act: something needed to be done – but what?

In the days that followed I have feverishly tried to answer to my heightened sensitivity to this thoughtless circling, this movement of the soul that I shall simply call evil. I tried to break the circle wherever I encountered it, by minor acts of kindness or a friendly smile, by any active resistance to its dynamics. But I soon found that I was powerless towards it, toward its omnipresence, which drained the drive to my resistance. I understood that I needed allies.

And they seemed hard to find. Within the thoughtless masses that seemed to pervade my world, I did encounter but one person that could share my sensitivity and understood its implications. The others became “the others” – good people in principle but without a sense of urgency to be aware of good. The way to find more allies then seemed barred by this enormous problem: how to convince the others of this urgency? Like an enormous edifice this problem cast a shadow over what had seemed to be so clear to me – I started doubting. Doubting the seemingly circling chains of events, doubting the bearing of the smaller causes to the greater consequences, doubting the motif of their existence, the seeming pervasiveness of evil. Were we mad, me and my ally?

A year went by, and I seemed to have forgotten my crusade already, when a new incident occurred. A small event, that spurred me once again to great extent. I had met a woman that fall, with whom I spent a lot of time. I stayed at her place and went along to walk her dog three times a day, in the nearby park. It was a small park, but the dog was smaller in proportion. The park seemed to be a meetingplace for the homeless and the alcoholics, and for fishermen. One day, as winter drew near, my woman, Janine, engaged in casual conversation with one of the homeless people there. The conversation did not last long but there was friendly greeting at the end. It was a conversation between acquaintances like you may have with the baker that you buy your daily bread from, or with someone that you often come across at times to walk the dog. I asked Janine if they were friends, and she told me about the man with whom she spoke, that he had a tent put up inside the bushes, and that he lived there with his wife. That they had frequent trouble with the law and were not always there, but had no other place to stay. This seemed to have gone on for quite some time, this unlicensed living in the park, despite the poor health of the woman.

Under such circumstances, suddenly the conversation that Janine had with this man seemed all too casual. She told me all these things, about their hopeless situation, like she would talk about a mild decline in turnover for the baker on the corner, where we got our daily bread, or about the disappointing state of the fishing waters, that fishermen sometimes complain about, when you meet them as you walk the dog. I had difficulty to conceal my incomprehension and my grief about her casualness, and I failed to hold out in the relationship for more than another three weeks.

The homeless couple in the park held out their situation longer. And every time that I passed by them on my bike without a greeting I grew greater appreciation and respect for Janine, that she had treated these people in such an ordinary, friendly way, just like she treated the baker on the corner or the fishermen: like neighbors, full members of a shared community. She had treated them with respect, which is not casual but grand – and also the least that you can do. I then remembered how she told me that these people had lost all contact with their relatives and friends, that they had told her that this was by far the hardest part of their existence: that they had no one but each other; and that they told her how it feels to be outside at Christmas time, when other people gather with their family and friends. And thinking back to the casualness of the conversation that I had witnessed between them I no longer saw a thoughtlessness but strength, the strength to stand against the grief and powerlessness, without falling into pity and lament.

Christmas was two days away. I could think of but one place, one way to celebrate it. I would fill a thermos up with coffee, with a good splash of whisky in it, and I would bring that to the homeless couple in the park. As I walked to the store to get the whisky, full of my good intent, I purposefully crossed the park, so that I could greet the people that I would bestow my good deed on, and they could recognize me as I came to visit them for Christmas. I was confident with myself and not even hopeful, but filled with assurance that I would do good, the kind of assurance that you have when, after wondering through unfamiliar streets, you meet a distinguishing mark, by which you recognize the street that you are in and know with confidence how to get home.

But it was not to be. It was late afternoon but the park was empty. No fishermen, no alcoholics, and no homeless couple in a hopeless situation. The place where once their tent had been was empty as could be, and I stood empty handed. No thermos filled with Irish coffee and no one to give it to. And yet, in that moment, my heart remained in confidence: there was no disappointment, no grief that I had been too late to carry out my act of kindness. For the kindness itself remained, as did my peace of heart, and I found myself wishing the stars to give the people I had missed a better life. I haven’t seen them since.

And so I walked back from the park, full as I had been on my way there, filling my empty hands with possibility – the moment had transferred its impetus, as I saw again its bearing: my good deed had not failed; it was a victory, just that it could be done.