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Learning to See: A Lesson on Dignity

Emily Malloure

Ōtsu’s chappals slapped along the stone pavement soiled with filthy water and dog droppings, then came to a stop.  At his feet, an old woman leaning against a wall peered up at Ōtsu.  Hers were eyes bereft of feeling, like the eyes of the cow that had looked at him and then sauntered away.  Her shoulders heaved as she panted for breath. Crouching down, Ōtsu took from the bag on his shoulder an aluminum cup and a bottle filled with water.

“Pāni. Pāni.” He gently encouraged the woman. “Ãp mērē dost hain.” Water. Water. I am your friend.

He placed the aluminum cup to her tiny mouth and slowly poured the water in, but it merely moistened her chin and soaked the tattered clothing that wrapped her body.  In a faint voice she muttered: “Gangā.” The Ganges.

When she spoke the word Gangā, a look of entreaty flickered in her eyes, and finally a tear flowed down.

Ōtsu nodded, and in a loud voice asked, “Tabiyat kharāb hai?” Do you feel ill? “Koyi bat nahin.” There is no need to fear.

From his bag he took an Indian-style sling he had woven from rope, wrapped her frail body in it, and lifted her on to his back.

“Gangā.”  With her body resting on his shoulders, the old woman repeated the word over and over in a weeping voice.

“Pāni chahiye?” Do you want to drink of the waters? Ōtsu responded as he began to walk.

-Shusaku Endo, Deep River  [1]

On my first visit to the Home for the Dying I was not prepared for what I would see.  As our car drove through the orange dust I could see a stone wall at the end of the road.  Faces peered over the wall at our car as we approached. We got out and immediately my nose was assaulted by the smell of urine, feces, and a smell I now know as the stench of human decay.

I entered the main gate.  I tried to appear confident, as if my surroundings had no effect on me. However, I was prepared to be more disturbed by this place than anywhere I had ever been.  Most of “the destitutes” had shaved heads — men and women alike — and you could see where insects had eaten their scalps. Some were lying on the ground; some were sitting on the ledge of what looked to be a dried-up fountain, the type you usually see in animal cages at zoos; others were milling about. And all of them were looking at me – or at least I felt that way as I walked through the grounds.  It was as if they were all asking, "Who’s this white girl dressed so strangely, and what is she doing here?”  It was obvious to them and to me: I didn’t belong.

I tried to get through the crowd of people without looking anyone in the eye. If I don't look at them I don't have to acknowledge them.

One very short woman, who, it was clear, had a mental illness, came up to me wearing a big smile.  There was no way I could avoid her, as she wrapped one of her arms around me, and with the other she grabbed my hand.  She snuggled her face into my shoulder. My hand, the one she was holding, was shaking. Should I let her touch me? My long hair was so close to her short, matted hair as it pressed into my shoulder.   I am going to get lice.

●●●

The goal of the Home for the Dying is to give people a dignified death.  Most of these people’s lives have never been dignified.  Half of the residents are mentally ill, either insane from birth (and therefore abandoned to the slums by their families who couldn't cope) or because whatever extensive abuse or trauma they had endured was so much that it eventually caused them to snap.  The other half are physically ill and nearing their deathbed.  This particular Home sees between 30 and 40 people die each month.  They are brought to the Home so that they don’t have to die on the streets alone.  Instead, they can die with people around them, knowing their expired body will not rot away until someone disposes of it, but rather will be covered with a cloth, prayed over, and then buried.

●●●

In his book Deep River , Shusaku Endo tells about the Ganges River, called the Gangā in Hindi. He describes how Japanese tourists travel on an excursion through India to Vārānasī to see the famous river. Their tour guide explains:

The city lies on the shores of two rivers, the Varanā and the Asi, and the main current of the River Ganges.   As I explained to you yesterday, the Hindus regard a place where two rivers flow together as holy ground... This is a city where people gather in order to die.  There are many roads that make their way here… Many pilgrims journey from every point of the compass in order to die here. Those who can’t ride in the buses and cars take their time walking here… [2]

Endo writes about the experience of two of his characters, Numada and Mitsuko, when they see the Ganges for the first time:

[L]epers who had lost all their fingers were lined up to beg.  Men and women with their stubs of hands and their decaying skin covered with filthy rags called out to Numada and Mitsuko in wailing voices.

“They're all human!” Numada could bear it no longer and cried out. “These people... they're all human like us.”  [3]

Like Numada, I too was shocked by my “sameness” with the destitutes in India. At first I didn’t want to see it.  Instead, I wanted an explanation. They must have done something wrong to end up with this sort of life, I reasoned.  I needed an explanation that would also make clear why my life was so privileged—that I had done, possibly, something right. I wanted to see myself as other, different… more dignified.

The more time I spent at the Home for the Dying, the more the residents began to grow on me. My posture toward them began to change.  I discovered that some of them liked to sing and we would each sing a line from a song in our language and repeat after one another.  I would find myself laughing along with them as we each tried to imitate the sounds of the other's language.  I also discovered that one woman spoke almost fluent English.  She told me all about her life as I painted her fingernails.  My fear subsided more and more with each visit.

●●●

I’ve reflected often on the story of creation.  "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27, ESV).  There is nothing different about how we are created that distinguishes us from another human being.  More personally, there is nothing different about how I was created that distinguishes me from the destitutes. We are all created the same way, by God and in His image. That means that God himself can be seen in me, and in each person I encounter on the streets of India.

I now realize that I’ve had a strong desire to protect myself from those our culture deems "undignified."  Some of this came from a fear of the unknown, but also, regrettably, there was another fear inside me that believed that my own dignity would somehow be polluted by my association with these people.  By the world's standards, the residents of the Home for the Dying can offer me nothing except for inconvenience.

Because suffering is more hidden in the States, it is easy to look away from the poor and the suffering. It is also easier on me to look away. If I don’t see it, I don’t have to deal with it.  I don't have to interact with it.  I don’t have to confront my fears.  In India, the poverty and pain was everywhere and so overwhelming that I couldn't look away any longer.  There was nowhere to look except directly into the eyes of the suffering.

I could look each of the women in the eye as I painted their nails.  When the children came up to me to beg for food, instead of pushing my way through I could reach out and touch their shoulder and ask them their names.  When the widow tugged at my sleeve, instead of pulling away I could smile at her and shake her hand. I could treat her like an image-bearer of God. I could see her.

In John 5, Jesus visits the pool called Bethesda.  It is described as a place where a multitude of blind, lame, and paralyzed lay, waiting for healing.  Many of them were probably waiting for death, just like those who make the pilgrimage to the Ganges.  This passage has taken on a new life for me since my time in India. I imagine this place was probably very similar to the Home for the Dying.  Similar smells and sounds, similar types of people with similar maladies.  It was probably a place most people in the city tried to avoid.  Jesus was going to Jerusalem for a feast, and of all places to visit in the city on this day, he visited the Pool of Bethesda.

Jesus was someone who didn't look away.  He took time to see people.  I love the stories of Jesus seeing the people that society tries not to see. He drew near to the "inconvenient."  He healed the sick, spent time with the unclean and the lepers and the outcasts.  He took a moment for the bleeding woman, and allowed the children to come to him.

Unlike me, Jesus did not try to protect his own dignity.  In fact, his death was the most undignifying experience imaginable.  He was stripped nearly naked, beaten bloody, and hung on a cross in front of everyone.  I can't conceive of anything more humiliating.  Jesus' whole life was about giving up his own dignity for us, the undignified.

[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV).

What a magnificent Savior we have.

●●●

I returned home and realized that I had been looking away my whole life.  The suffering are all around me.  They are in my country, my city, and on my street.

I've started to spend time at a coffee shop for the homeless in Denver.  This is a place where anyone can get a free cup of coffee and just hang out and feel human.  The homeless often refer to this coffee shop as a place to “be.”  I like going there because it reminds me of my time in India.  I like the familiar smells and the familiar discomfort of walking up the steps where the homeless sit and smoke and stare at me as I walk in.  Like at the Home for the Dying, most of them have some sort of mental illness.

A dictionary definition for dignity is "being worthy of respect."  As a verb, to dignify  means to make something seem worthy and impressive. [4] Just like the poor in India, I can treat my homeless friends with respect.  I can look them in the eye and ask them their names.  I can listen to their story and give them a hug.  I can be patient when they repeat themselves.  I can treat them like an image-bearer of our God.  I can give up a little bit of myself to give them a little bit of dignity — and find that, in each person, I encounter a bit of God Himself.

  ●●●

There is one person from the Home for the Dying that will always be imprinted in my memory.  I was asked by the staff to feed lunch to a woman who was bedridden.  She couldn’t speak and most likely couldn’t understand, either — not English, not Hindi, not anything. Her limbs were lifeless and she lay on a mat against the wall in the hallway. She appeared to be about my age.

I lifted her mangled body upright so that she could eat and propped her against the wall. I sat down on her mat, leaning my back against the wall next to her. She was unable to stay upright, so the weight of her upper body was leaning against my shoulder as we sat together on the mat.  I grabbed the plate and the spoon and lifted a bite of soup to her mouth.

With each spoonful she opened her mouth and I could hear her jaw grinding as she swallowed.  She finished the entire meal.  Even though she couldn’t understand me, I spoke to her in English and told her about myself; my name, where I was from, and how long I had been in India.  Every few bites she would stop and stare at me, directly into my eyes.

She would never go on to do anything spectacular and was probably going to die within the year.  In those twenty minutes we shared together, she gave me more than I ever could give her.  She allowed me to feed her and gave me the honor of her presence.  Sitting on her mat I felt like I was on holy ground, in a holy moment, seeing Christ in someone I never expected. I saw her and she saw me.

Later I found out that the woman’s name was Gangā.

Questions for reflection:

Who are the “inconvenient” people that you overlook or try to avoid?

What are your fears and reservations about interacting with them?

Who can you treat like an “image-bearer of God” this week and what could that look like?  

Where can you get involved with the poor and suffering in your city? On your campus?

Meditate on Philippians 2:6-8. Think about ways you can “empty yourself” as Christ did.  Be honest with yourself about barriers that prevent you from “emptying yourself.” Pray that He will help you overcome them and that He would give you eyes to see people as He does.

End Notes

1 Endo, Shusaku (1994). Deep River (Van C. Gessel, Trans.). New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation, pp. 192-193.

2 Endo, Deep River , pp. 135, 142

3 Endo, Deep River , p. 161

4 New Oxford American Dictionary

 

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