Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Making space for the other

A couple of weeks ago, I joined up with a Sai seva women's group to celebrate Baba's 85th birthday with cake-cutting and feeding home-cooked food to the inmates of Nimhans. At the home for the mentally challenged, bhajans and cake cutting later, we served food to the inmates who seated themselves in rows on the ground in the big chowltry-like dining hall.

While I was standing by the door and waiting for my turn to serve the food, a couple of inmates caught my eye - an older and younger woman seated side by side. The older one seemed relatively more aware and together - the younger one more scattered and clueless. The young woman had angled herself toward the older one and was eating messily, with her plate touching the old woman. The old woman didn't seem to mind at all. As the meal progressed, the young woman swung closer and closer to the older one until at last she was completely facing her, her plate resting on the old woman's lap, occasionally coughing loudly in the old woman's face as she ate. It was remarkable to watch the old woman through all of this. Her position looked unbearably uncomfortable to me, but she herself was completely relaxed and calm. Not only that, she occasionally fussed over the young woman, telling her to eat certain items on her plate, and everytime she coughed, she'd cluck comfortingly to her. She seemed so solicitous and caring of the other woman regardless of her own discomfort.

I was amazed. I couldn't help but contrast that to the tight boundaries and intolerance and jealously guarded personal space of us supposedly saner folk.

Easwaran puts this observation across, "If life offers so many opportunities to practice non-violence today, it is because all of us have been so conditioned to focus on ourselves. Because of this, we have become so impatient that we burst out at the slightest provocation – not only mentally, not only verbally, but with our heart, our lungs, our whole nervous system. Not to be provoked, not to be frightened, not to retaliate requires a lot of stability inside so that these passing storms do not upset us. This is what Gandhi means by nonviolence, and he calls it the most active force in the world. You don’t retaliate, you don’t retire; you just stand where you are, firmly rooted – rooted in wisdom, rooted in love, unshakably kind in the face of criticism, opposition, calumny, or slander." Or discomfort.

That old woman was a living example of this. Granted she was probably mentally none too sound herself, but such an example of forbearance and kindness and courtesy is beautiful wherever it is found.

I came away from there touched and humbled. True acts of service include not only overt gestures like sharing our food with the under-privileged but also the small simple everyday acts like bearing a little discomfort, swallowing a sharp retort or refraining from making a hasty judgement in order to make space for the other.