Life from Both Sides

This Christmas we managed a very low key but joyous affair. Presents and greetings cards were kept to a minimum. Beyond family, a few people might have been ‘re-gifted’ chocolates and prosecco and certainly I remember indulging on some chocolate liqueurs which were never given directly to me – so I can confirm this system works adequately. I was fortunate to receive a sound and solid looking digital speaker for essential listening and Jill received a bottle of, long desired for, perfume from the kids. They got a couple of overly-sentimental books and a bath-bomb each. We all played Scrabble, Monopoly and cards – ‘Newmarket’ to be precise with chocolate coins, as taught me by my grandmother. (Not that she would countenance the use of chocolate coins however. She was a gambler and we were hard-core back in the seventies using real pennies). Anyhow, we did receive one significant gift, replete with meaning and echoing through time. A relatively large sum of money from an Ethiopian man now living in the US. Elias had been a child in the 1984 famine and had lost most of his family and had subsequently been raised in an orphanage run by a foreign aid agency. His life had been tough and one full of unspeakable sadnesses. Jill and I met him around the end of the 1990s and our lives had been closely entwined from then onwards. Elias’ life in the US had never been a bed of roses either but the receipt of his gift somehow signaled a change in fortunes since goods, services and money had generally flowed, for a decade or two, in the opposite direction! Elias suggested we spend the money on a family meal out and on some form of entertainment prior to eating. We happily obliged taking the kids and each other to a nearby Nepalese restaurant after watching the film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the City Screen in York. Poignant indeed since the start and end of the film focused squarely on Freddie Mercury and Queen’s historical performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985; something both Jill and I watched as students in separate locations and something which led us to a life inextricably and forever linked with Ethiopia. I wonder, is it possible and reasonable to believe the money that I, half reluctantly, drew out of my pockets on that day and donated to the cause – for children like Elias - had over 30 years been multiplied one-hundred fold with love and come back to me in the fashion of the ‘magic pennies’ we used to sing about at primary school. Surely we all
remember those lyrics?

“It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.”

Living surrounded by abject, financial poverty was simply the norm during our days in Ethiopia. Beggars lined every street corner and unemployment was a visible scourge on the whole of society. Visitors soon acclimatized and most people could eventually look through the mist of poverty with relative ease and form a clear conscience. Whenever I heard a knock at our front door I always thought it mildly comical to ask ‘how much do they want’ rather than ‘who might that be’! My empathy skills have always been limited and though I could see and feel their poverty it was harder for me to imagine the shame of being perpetually in debt to another, or to society in general, and for one’s God given potential to never be realized.

So you might see that borrowing money on the other hand can be very demeaning for two people who have enjoyed the privilege of being ‘whites’ in an impoverished African society for so many years. It certainly does not come easy. Despite some well-paid, but nevertheless temporary employment in the Middle East, Jill and I simply cannot keep up with the extortionate fees charged by British universities to keep our children in full-time education. And so, we have availed ourselves of the generosity of a few outstanding individuals in our local, well-heeled Anglican church. And one family in particular have been magnificent; or should I say the elderly patriarch and matriarch thereof. The day after eating out on Elias's gift, in relative Nepalese splendour, I was asked to meet the old man in town to pick up a cheque. I would find him with younger family members enjoying a coffee or hot chocolate and cakes together at the theatre. Alas, I felt the shame of it all well before leaving home and dearly wished to just get lost forever in the thronging city crowds making their final Christmas purchases. In a quiet alleyway I prayed for strength and told myself again and again this was for the benefit of my kids alone and one day I would be free from debt and from such commitments with God’s help and grace (and preferable a nice long contract).

Another great friend once told us the story an African colleague who was being driven through the streets of Addis Ababa. She was from West Africa, worked for the United Nations and enjoyed all the benefits afforded to a diplomat. Nevertheless, the beggar she gave alms to at the traffic lights muttered something quietly under his breath whilst nodding his appreciation. This perturbed her and she asked her driver to translate. At first he refused but eventually explained the beggar had
asked God’s forgiveness for ‘taking money off a slave’! You see in former times Ethiopian highlanders, with their distinctive facial features and strategic geographical location across the sea from Arabia, were slave traders. They became rich on the proceeds of slavery, shipping ‘black Africans’ from the interior to the coast. And still to this day, many maintain a collective attitude of superiority despite their own personal circumstances. Just a little less controversial in Ethiopian culture is the idea that beggars are performing a service for the rest of society – allowing those with more than their fair share to divest themselves of the unnecessary trappings of wealth. An interesting idea that has its roots in ascetic Christian circles.

Which is worse then, we may ask ourselves? A mental disposition or physical situation which we rely on to rank ourselves in society’s eyes above or below our fellow man?

I looked closely at Jim as he fumbled with numerous credit cards and cheque books and failed dismally to understand the rules and regulations imposed by the various banks we visited. It was impossible to transfer such a sum of money in this or that manner, this credit card was out of date and this account was inaccessible with only one signature – but finally the job was done. Jim had loaned me the cash I needed and I was able to thank him for his time and money. Then with not a shred of irony and with total sincerity he told me how pleased he was to have my friendship. Under the circumstances I found that hard to believe and dreamt of the time when we could meet and converse as equals. In my status as a borrower and a beggar of sorts I tend to conclude I am something less than God intended me to be which is clearly, as false a proposition as my proud Ethiopian beggar’s, he who would rather sell his West African benefactor to an ancient Arab than simply thank her for some temporary assistance. How messed up we all really are. How tragically we fail to grasp who we truly are in the sight of God?

There is an old song by Joni Mitchell in which she sings ‘I have looked at life from both sides now’ and indeed, I appear to have had that opportunity. I have been rich and now I am poor (and please God I will be rich again or at least free of debt!). The older I get the greater sense her lyrics make and I am reminded of another song drawn from the book of Ecclesiastes;

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

And so perhaps I should add a couple more stanzas to that ancient poem and contemporary song written by The Byrds;

“A time to be rich and a time to be poor
A time to lend and a time to borrow.”

In the book of Ezekiel, the great king Nebuchanezzar has a dream in which he is represented as a great tree which gives shade and fruit to man and animals alike and in which birds make their nests. In time this tree was cut down and the king spent 'seven times' in the wilderness before he was restored to his former glory. Few of us, like Nebuchanezzar get a chance to ‘look at life from both sides’ and perhaps if we do we will realize that a tree does not stand for its own glory but is simply there to house the birds and the bees and to provide fruit and shade to all in accordance with their earthly needs. We should try therefore to graciously accept each and every state and stage in our lives as nothing more than a chance to learn who and what we are in the sight of God.