I was going round and round Iligan City on endless errands and I was dead tired. I was already oblivious to my surroundings, and even to the repugnant smell of the market place I normally complained about. All I wanted at that time was to go home and rest. The jeepney I was riding in was caught in traffic when this beggar hopped on board. He wiped our shoes with a dirty piece of rag. Afterwards, he waited for someone to spare him some coins, or leftover food, or anything that would be freely given. Nobody moved. Nobody even looked at him directly. I only peered at him from the corner of my eyes. I have this self-imposed rule of never giving money to beggars. I gave them food if I had some, but I carried nothing that day. The beggar waited for a long while then went away disgruntled.
This scenario was not new to me. I had seen this repeated many times. When I lived in Metro Manila for almost six years, I experienced worse episodes than this. The beggars in the street of the metropolis made me feel either disillusioned with the rampant poverty in the country, or ashamed that I could not do more for those who needed help. In both cases though, I always felt thankful that I was not the one begging for alms on the streets.
However, this particular mendicant here in Iligan brought back memories of a chance encounter with an altogether different sort of street urchin.
It happened on the busy streets of Quezon City. I was on my way to work at that time when a little beggar boy hopped aboard the jeepney I was riding in. He sang as he wiped our feet with a dirty piece of rag. A couple of the passengers gave him some coins, then someone handed him a cookie. The street urchin looked genuinely happy at what he received that he could not wipe this huge grin off his face. He looked almost comical. He showed the other young beggars his treasure of a cookie, and even clutched the baked treat close to his heart.
The jeepney had stopped at the red traffic light. The boy sat down on one of the vacant seats, and grinned all the while. The passenger seated next to him told him off for reeking badly. But he was too preoccupied with his happiness that he acted as if he did not or could not hear the complainer. When the light finally turned green, he took off. I gave him one last look. He was already playing tag with the other street urchins right in the middle of the oncoming traffic. I saw that his smile only grew wider and wider as our ride left him behind.
For a long time, I could not get that smile out of my head. It showed genuine delight over something seemingly trivial. That little boy in his dirty, smelly, and torn clothes was a picture of happiness. He was so pleased with the cookie that I might have been tempted to give him a big hug. At that moment, I thought that he epitomized the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
His reaction to his good though small fortune made me feel rather ashamed of myself — myself and other people like me who could not recognize little treasures if these were freely handed out to us. In my defense, my exposure to such things was rather limited. I grew up in a family where my loved ones gave me everything I ever needed. Even when money was tight, they still managed to indulge my whims now and again. I realized belatedly that I have been pampered and well-taken care of all my life. I lived in a sheltered world that my parents painstakingly built for me and my siblings. They wanted to protect me from the harsh realities of the world.
For that, I am eternally grateful, of course. However, this also gives me a short-sighted view of how poverty affects people.
Ironically, I’ve only been introduced to the “harshness and cruelty of being poor” through dramatic depictions on TV or in the movies. I was fortunate then that my parents trusted me enough to let me live in Manila on my own for several years.
Back then, I was an “Iskolar ng Bayan:” a student of the University of the Philippines who was supported by my folks. I had little to complain about. True, my finances were limited, but I never really ran out of money. As compared to a few of my classmates, I actually had more than enough. I could go out with my friends once in a while and buy things that I liked. When I got a part-time job, I had more money to burn.
Then, life in Manila exposed me to what very poor people go through everyday. There was a time when I used to cry for their predicament, and for myself for not being able to give more. As time went by though, as I became accustomed to seeing the same scene over and over, I slowly became hardened to the fact that there will always be beggars on the streets. And that I could not solve poverty with what little alms I could give. In time, I no longer cared the way I did before.
In an effort to block out that ugly truth, I convinced myself that I was finally growing up, that I have matured, and became more realistic with my expectations in life.
Then, I remembered that smile on the street urchin’s face. This made me wonder, with everything that I have, with everything that was given to me, have I ever truly smiled that way? Have I ever expressed happiness the same way that that little beggar boy did over something that was freely given?
I honestly can’t tell. I do have everything I want, and everything I wish for. And yet, being content with what life has given me seems so difficult sometimes.
That boy taught me a very important lesson that day. He made me rethink some of my priorities in life. Right now, the mere thought of him makes me smile: a simple, well-contented grin, while I ponder on the thought of how life can give some people lemons, and they can still make lemonades… which is of course, the perfect accompaniment to a piece of cookie.
Diane was born in Iligan City and raised in Marawi City. She teaches at the Mindanao State University where she also earned her AB English degree.