A lot of the things we do these days are mindless. We drive without thought. We do our work without much thought. We even speak with very little consciousness. I caught myself in the same trap when “practicing gratitude”. But a chance encounter, a powerful encounter with a man on a beach flipped a switch and my eyes will never see the same again.
Practice gratitude for a better life they say
We have all heard the top yogis, stars or super blissed out people say that practising gratitude will improve your life. There are countless books, mantras and podcasts devoted to the topic.
So what do we regular people do? We start keeping a journal and writing all of the things we feel grateful for. But nothing changes. We feel the same that night. We wake up feeling the same. Life continues to be the same.
Why? Why aren’t we floating on a bubble? Why isnt is the sun radiating out of our faces? Why do we still feel like a person down on their luck?
Let me tell you a story
Andy and I were walking on the beach a couple of months ago and on the way back to the car a man started approaching us. Coming from South Africa, most people’s initial reaction is to avoid this situation for various reasons. While being back in SA I had made a conscious decision to break this inside of me and so at that moment, I walked toward him too.
To be honest I couldn’t understand much through his thick African accent and no teeth. But these words I did hear. And the tears in his eyes cut through my whole being in a way I hadn’t felt –
“Please, I haven’t eaten for days. I will do any work. Please. I am so hungry. I can’t get home and I have no money. All I want is some food. I will do any work for you please”
Even writing about it, going back to that moment brings tears to my eyes. The desperation and complete rock bottom in his voice pierced my heart. Andy and I had just enjoyed a beautiful dinner out and had leftover pizza and crisps in the car. We told him to meet us back up at the main road and we will give him some food.
So we pull up driving my dad’s Mercedes and the guilt on my face is probably pretty visible. Here is a man twice my age sleeping on rocks on a beach and has not eaten for 4 days and Andy and I are driving a Mercedes. We offer to give him a ride to the taxi station. It’s a mega hill back up from the beach and after no food, for so long I sure would dread it.
He sits in the back and I can hear hin desperately trying to get the food in his mouth. Still, the guilt of this mans plight and my fortune is tearing me up inside.
He then asks us if we have any garden work. He will work for 2 days for the equivalent of 12 USD. 2 days of labour in the garden for 12 dollars. We had just spent 12 dollars eating a meal out. As we were just house sitting we were not at liberty to hire someone but decided just to give him the money. We took him to the station, gave him some cash, extra food we had and a towel and a tote bag to keep it in.
When I used to practice gratitude I would just kind of gloss over the most obvious shit to be grateful for. House, food, clothes.
But after meeting this man, something shifted. That night I had a shower and was really enjoying it after our day at the beach and dinner. I then thought of him. I’m sure he would love to have a hot shower. That shower became the best shower I had had since experiencing bucket baths in India.
For the days following, I couldn’t shake the thought of this man’s desperation, loneliness and despair. His clothes were battered and he himself looked warn. His eyes were sad and tired.
Every time I ate a delicious healthy meal this stone sank in my heart because he probably ate scraps and as when we had met, probably even nothing.
Check your privilege
What I came to realise was this: I was privileged. My skin colour. My family. My friends. My position. My opportunities. My health. My travels. My finances. My education. Everything. I was privileged and I had to face it.
A lot of people don’t want to face their privilege, especially their white advantage. Having travelled for the last 8 years across the world, the poverty, the sickness, the burdens people are suffering, are very, very seldom, white people.
Before people jump on their horses, yes, there are white people that suffer poverty and lack of opportunities, but when compared to the rest of the world, it is a huge, massive disparity and one that we as white folks need to take responsibility for and own up to.
How do privilege and gratitude work together?
Remember I said that I was writing gratitudes mindlessly and not really connecting to them? Well after meeting this man and awakening to my own inherent privilege in life, my sense of gratitude reached a part of me that I have never experienced.
It allowed me to move beyond just writing my thanks down in a book to feeling gratitude in my day to day activities.
Walking to the fridge – wow, I have a f**king fridge, and it’s full of healthy food. Going to a clean toilet… how amazing is it that I get to sit down in a safe space that’s clean and hygienic? Level 10 amazing. What should I wear today? As if I actually have the option of what to wear? That I have clean fresh clothes at my disposal? Should I have a bath or have a shower? The fact that I don’t have to clean myself out of a bucket shared with the whole family is a massive blessing never mind actually having an option.
These are some of the things that shifted. My awareness of my privilege has opened my heart not to just pen down some fake thanks, but to feel appreciation in the truest sense. To feel the clean air move into my lungs. To wear shoes that support my journey in life. To eat my meals with the deepest thanks and loving appreciation.
And this is how life starts to change
So I started off by saying that when I started the gratitude thing I felt nothing different. I felt little connection to what I was writing and feeling.
But after experiencing first-hand someone’s lack, it opened my eyes in a different way to the worlds suffering and the things that people endure and called day to day life.
The sense of appreciation started to pervade my days and my thoughts. My heart feels so happy because I have all these things that make life easy and enjoyable. The thoughts of lack are taken over by the understanding that I am already rich in so many ways. I don’t earn a lot of money nor do I own a car or a house or even at this moment, even rent a house. In a modern sense of success, I guess I still have a long way to go. But that’s ok. I don’t mind that I am not there yet. I have what I need to live a comfortable life.
Service to others is service to yourself
One way to feel deep gratitude and feel happy for the simple things in life is to offer service to others. I know that most people work 40 hours a week and on top of that have life admin, so the thought of service is kind of daunting and unappealing. But service does not have to be a full day on the weekend. It can and is for some but is not limited to.
So let me offer an alternative: offer service to all people every day. If you see the same homeless guy day after day – buy him some warm food? If you have cupboards and cupboards of clothing, bedding and towels – take it to local communities that can share and distribute it. Open the doors for people. Ask cashiers how their day is going. Call servers by their name. Carry your own shit. Let your house cleaners use your washing machines to do their laundry or let them have showers at your place after they have cleaned your beautiful space and before they return to a place you wouldn’t stay in if someone paid you to. Pay someone a little more just because you can actually afford it instead of one less drink. One less meal out and one less new item of clothing. A little extra money and the gesture means more to them than the less of extra spending money for yourself.
Look at people in the eyes
What I have come to notice with people that have privilege (that is a house/apartment, a bed, kitchen and their own bathroom at the basic level) is that they cant look at people who have less than them in the eyes.
Very few do in fact. I noticed this all throughout my travels and yes, myself. When people would come to my window asking for money, I would struggle to offer them the basic human connection of eye contact. Do you resonate?
Why is that? Because on the deepest level as humans, we know that we are so privileged and that piece that connects us all wants to share and help them. I know we can’t give everyone that asks us money. Or we don’t always have food or much else to give. But what we can give, is a moment to look them in the eyes and be honest – “sorry dude, I don’t have cash on me” or “I don’t have time now but if I see you again I will get you a meal yeah!”. Just. Be. Human.
Giving others the basic human right of eye contact and connecting with them at that moment is not easy. You face your own guilt and your own privilege. But the most difficult things in life are the most liberating and connect us to real-life experience. It’s a chance to see your life for what it really is: full of beautiful things, beautiful people that love and care for you and access to basic necessities that many in the world struggle for. That connection is the connection to real gratitude, to feel the beauty of life, not the struggle for more more more acquisition of money, things and status.
To the man on the beach
I won’t forget that man. I won’t let myself. Because looking into his eyes cut into my own life experience and cracked it wide open for me to see and feel.
Every time I feel like I need more money, I will remember that at least I have 12 dollars. I will acknowledge that I have family and friends to take me in, feed me and clothe me. Every time I long for success in a way that is self-deprecating, I will acknowledge that I am recognised, if only by one person, my partner.
To the man on the beach: Thank you for being the catalyst in opening up my heart to gratitude for the life I have and lead. And I wish that you will find your family again and feel the love I have available in my life. If not, at least feel the love I do for you, wherever you are <3