I’m often told by people who spend time with me that I am jaded. They are right. I am jaded. I’ve seen lots of things that have made me tend towards cynicism and sarcasm. I normally don’t give my spare change to people who ask. This is a self-defense mechanism I have built up over time, because many people will take advantage of someone who is willing to share too much of themself.
The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Sometimes, it is better to throw aside everything you think you know and just be kind. Which leads me to tell a tale of my workplace.
I spend a significant portion of my time here credentialing people. If you are a member of the media, and you want to cover the stories happening here in Iraq in the near future, you will probably have to visit me for a press pass.
Needless to say, I meet many people as I verify that they are indeed members of the press here to report what is happening and not souless insurgents hell bent on evil deeds. About half my time is spent with Western media and the other half is spent dealing with Iraqis. Iraq has a burgeoning media establishment. That makes me happy.
I work with an interpreter in my job because my current Arabic is limited to a few words. A few days ago, a man was waiting in line and the intrepreter was assisting him in filling out his badge renewal form. I heard laughter coming from that part of the room a few times. I hear laughter a lot. Sometimes it is forced, and sometimes it is drunken, and every now and then it is pure and infectious, making those who hear it smile without realizing that they are. The laughter I heard coming from my intrepreter was last of these types of laughter. It made me smile and only after I smiled did I realize that I had.
I looked over and saw a small man sitting in a chair, filling out his form. He smiled at me. I smiled back and continued processing other applications. A few minutes later, it was his turn to sit in the chair and have his badge renewal form reviewed. As he approached my desk, he smiled at me warmly and shook my hand vigorously. I tried not to stare at him because of his terrible limp as I wondered whether he suffered from a birth defect or perhaps an injury incurred during the decades of uncertainty and war that Iraq has suffered through.
As I reveiwed the documentation he presented me, I realized that the man’s passport was expired. I cannot issue an ID without a valid passport, and for good reason. I asked my intrepreter to have the man step aside and explain to him that the passport must be renewed before a badge could be issued. They moved off into the corner – the small, determined Iraqi man limping and smiling. I moved on to my next customer because I had many people waiting.
A minute or so later, I heard another outburst of warm, heartfelt laughter. When I finished processing the customer in front of me, I asked my intrepreter what was being said. I wanted to share in whatever it was. I don’t laugh as much as I should. Sometimes, I force laughter. I don’t like that about myself. Laughing with your heart is a healthy thing.
My intrepreter told me that the man had been recently unemployed and faced a number of different troubles. The troubles mentioned would make most Americans cringe. Daily life for an Iraqi in Baghdad involves danger and inconvenience on a level that would mentally crush many Americans. Many of us rely on our SSRIs and energy drinks to keep us moving through a day. Iraqis have to rely on other means to cope. And their world is much more daunting than ours. How many of your family members have been blown up recently? Have you had a mother or sister murdered because they were too friendly with foreigners? You probably haven’t been restricted from having a cell phone or satellite TV for the last 20 years.
The little man with the limp has been using his wits and humor as his tools to get from checkpoint to checkpoint, from job to job and from day to day. He’s been surviving on the strength of his smile and sense of humor for a long time. I appreciate that.
As he finished telling my intrepreter his funny tales of a hard life, he turned and began to walk out. Before he had made it, I had the whole story in English, and something inside me told me I needed to act. I asked my intrepreter how much a passport renewal would cost the man. The reply was a small amount for me, probably a huge one for him. I imagined what he might have to go through to get enough money to renew his passport so he could perform his duties as a member of the new Iraqi press.
I made a spur of the moment donation of cash out of my pocket. And I’ll never regret it. Most people I know will never live in a war torn city. Most will never be crippled. Most won’t ever wonder where they will get the money to renew their passport so they can start a new job and renew hope. Most will never have to survive on their own ability to make other people laugh – to turn a life of hard times into a funny story that makes people around smile and laugh so that their eyes crinkle up.
The Iraqi came back with his renewed passport yesterday, shook my hand warmly, and thanked me sincerely through the intrepreter. And it was worth every penny. I hope he has a long life full of genuine laughter, the kind that makes people in earshot wonder what great thing they are missing out on. You can find deserving people in need all around you, and when you do, you should show them an act of kindness, because in the long run, you will benefit too.