Selfish Generosity

Human DignityAwesome Moments

In the popular classic novel A Little Princess, heiress-turned-scullery-maid Sara Crewe is startled and embarrassed when a young boy, Donald, approaches her and presses a sixpence into her hand.

He has taken pity upon her disheveled state and identified her as one of those beggars without parents or food he has heard about in Christmastime stories. He has therefore decided to part with his sixpence, which would no doubt keep her content and well-fed for life.

As an eight-year-old first reading the book, I found Sarah’s ordeal to be a very confusing alien concept. Why did she display such hesitancy? I wondered at her distress over accepting a measly little penny. Surely, accepting money when she was clearly in need of it was a logical, rational thing to do?

I was to make the same mistake young Donald made, only a few months after reading A Little Princess.

On the back entrance of the Haroon K. Baksh (HKB) department store in Lahore, Pakistan, there is a wizened old man whose sole job is to sweep his allotted floor twice a day and oversee the back storage. He was not quite so old when I first saw him; in fact, eight years ago Uncle Masood had no white hair on his head.

With unrelenting, curious eyes, I took in his deplorably patched but meticulously pressed clothes, his skinny frame, and the hungry, defeated look in his desolate black eyes. I now realize how shamelessly obtuse I was, and how he no doubt politely ignored my incessant staring. Unfortunately, my childlike, unthinking resolution compelled me to walk over to him, brandishing the crumpled change from a previously bought (and consumed) chocolate bar. As I proffered the 50-rupee note, I confidently boomed, “Uncle, this is for you!”

The man stared at my outstretched hand and hopeful smile for a few moments before sinking to his knees, his kind eyes twinkling. With a smile, he said, “You are very kind, little lady. But I cannot take your money. Why don't you give it to your abba, and he will buy you a delicious ice cream!” He pointed to my father, who stood with a sheepish and apologetic smile a few meters away. I was utterly dumbstruck and very, very disappointed. After the man patted my head and stood up, I turned mechanically and walked to our car. I remained silent throughout the journey.

At home my father explained that the man was not a beggar, and my gesture could have offended him. I did not understand.

Over the years, a friendship developed between the man and my father. Being acutely embarrassed over my past behavior, I never accompanied my father to HKB. He told me that the man still remembered “little miss” and thought of me often. Sometimes, he would send a toffee or chocolate bar, chuckling as he reminisced about my chocolate-smeared cheeks from 2008.

I learned that I had been right in my initial judgement; Uncle Masood is very poor, and the little money he makes from his job barely covers what he and his family need to survive. And yet he accepts not a single rupee in charity. When he and my father meet, they shake hands and depart as equals.

When he and my father meet, they shake hands and depart as equals.

To my mortification, my family has not let me forget my mistake. It has made for a highly amusing anecdote, a dinnertime favorite to be shared with guests and visitors. At first, it drove me crazy. It seemed everyone was taking Uncle Masood’s side, when it was clearly me who had been slighted. I did not understand why, instead of being thanked for my offering, I was being treated like an infant. To my unreasonable young mind, it was as if Uncle Masood had shown me my place.

My mother had a wonderful plan.

Every night before we went to sleep, my mother would tell us fairy tales and fables about princesses and warriors, dragons and magical birds. So for a while, instead of these fantasy stories, my mother told me to close my eyes and imagine I was a little girl called Sara Crewe. Sara, as the title of the book suggests, is born and bred a little princess, until her father dies and she is left at the mercy of a cruel, sadistic headmistress.

“Sara Crewe,” she said, “has no nice clothes. She has no fancy cars. She doesn’t even have a home, or parents. But Sara doesn’t want to be a beggar. Sara decides she wants to earn her food and shelter by working at Miss Minchin’s seminary, even though the tasks are unreasonable and menial, the hours are long, and it is very, very cold.”

Then Mama asked me, “Tell me, Sara Crewe. You are a very hard-working girl, you teach French lessons during the day and run errands during the evening, all for some scraps of food and a lumpy mattress in a rat-filled attic. If a little boy comes to you, and gives you his only penny, thinking you are a little beggar-girl based on your appearance, how do you feel?”

My first thought was “surprised.” But as I contemplated the idea further, I thought, “Hurt. Embarrassed. Offended.”

It was oh-so-clear to me now how awkward and difficult the transition from riches to rags was. How the rags were not a true reflection of a person’s spirit, pride, and status.

Understanding Sara Crewe was just a step away from understanding Uncle Masood. Granted, he was no born heir. But like Sara Crewe, he did not let his finances and his appearance define him, his values, or his choices. He was not a beggar, and he would not accept money from a well-meaning young girl, because he felt he had not earned it.

In the past, the feelings of the person being helped had never struck me as an important part of the equation of generosity. It seemed straightforward enough; if there was anything I could do to help, I should do it.

But these discoveries? They threatened to overturn every carefully constructed concept I had of what was good and what was bad.

Ever since I was a very little girl, I had watched superheroes on television. I had cheered and clapped along with the other kids in the cinema when the valiant saviors restored justice, helping the ordinary folk from impending harm. Since nursery I had been taught to share, to be generous, to be kind.

I realized now that people who are more fortunate, who pride themselves upon being sensitive to the suffering of others, can sometimes be so blind that they see only the issue instead of the human behind it. When I had looked at Uncle Masood, I had seen poverty; I had not seen a living, breathing human being, whose feelings and self-respect were to be accounted for.

When I had looked at Uncle Masood, I had seen poverty; I had not seen a living, breathing human being, whose feelings and self-respect were to be accounted for.

I had thought I was being kind. On the contrary, it was a selfish generosity. The purpose of my offering the money was to give myself a sense of fulfillment and to feed my own conscience, much like someone would feed their ego. But more importantly, it was selfish because I wasn't thinking about the other person's feelings at all, but how good I would feel upon helping him.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I have a passion for helping others. But something has changed between that fateful day in HKB and now. Today, I know that generosity and charity are so much more then carelessly thrown paper notes. Generosity isn't about thrusting portions of wealth at people who you think need it. Generosity is about respecting and valuing a human being so much that you want to make him or her happy. Generosity is about that special bond you make with the person you help, where there is no lingering aftertaste of dept.

When I see people in patched clothes now, before anything else, I make it a point to give them what every human being can return: a smile.

I learned a lot from both A Little Princess and my experiences. I learned that there were so many colors between my previously threadbare notions of wrong or right. How could generosity ever be a bad thing? I discovered that it cost too much if it came at the expense of someone’s dignity.

When I look back at my encounter with Uncle Masood, instead of confusion, I feel utter embarrassment at my tactlessness and stupidity. The fifty rupees may have seemed like a trifling thing to me. But as I thought more and more about my mother’s stories, I realized that to Uncle Masood it must have been a horrendous sign, a dreadful reminder of his lowly status and powerlessness. It was that final, flimsy nail which, if driven in, would mean the demise of his pride, identity, honor, and self-worth. It certainly would have been for me.

What is the price of dignity? It could be just fifty rupees.

Zainab Umar is a 16-year old student at the Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. Her hobbies include writing, reading, art, and public speaking.

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