Certain thoughts of a certain person are troubling me. For some reason, the mind recollects the last few passages of a book read long ago. I walk to the bookshelf in the study and pull out the book, An Intimate History of Humanity. It is dusty, uncared for. I begin to read:
Half a minute is enough to transform an apparently ordinary person into an object of hatred, an enemy of humanity. He committed a murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Then in his desolate jail, half a minute was enough to transform him again, into a hero. He saved a man’s life and was pardoned. But when he got home he found his wife living with someone else and his daughter knew nothing of him. He was unwanted, so he decided that he might as well be dead.
His attempt at suicide was also a failure. A monk summoned to his bedside said to him, ‘Your story is terrifying, but I can do nothing for you. My own family is wealthy, but I gave up my inheritance and I have nothing but debts. I spend everything I have finding homes for the homeless. I can give you nothing. You want to die, and there is nothing to stop you. But before you kill yourself, come and give me a hand. Afterwards, you can do what you like.’
Those words changed the murderer’s world. Somebody needed him: at last he was no longer superfluous and disposable. He agreed to help. And the world was never the same again for the monk, who had been feeling overwhelmed by the amount of suffering around him, to which all his efforts were making only a minute difference. The chance encounter with the murderer gave him an idea which was to shape his whole future: faced by a person in distress, he had given him nothing, but asked something from him instead. The murderer later said to the monk: ‘If you had given me money, or a room, or a job, I would have restarted my life of crime and killed someone else. But you needed me.’ That was how Abbe Pierre’s movement for the very poor was born, from an encounter of two totally different individuals who lit up a light in each other’s heart. These two men were not soul-mates in the ordinary, romantic meaning of that word, but each owes the other the sense of direction which guides their life today.
It is in the power of everybody, with a little courage, to hold out a hand to someone different, to listen, and to attempt to increase, even by a tiny amount, the quantity of kindness and humanity in the world…
I recollect that these words – at the end of a deeply thought-provoking book – had had a profound effect upon me. No purpose can be nobler than the purpose of giving, I had concluded. And that had resolved, in part, the intractable question of life’s purpose.
I place the book back on the shelf. I might need it another day.