If eighteen years of brainwashing at the hands of nuns and priests in Catholic school taught me anything, it was to be charitable, help those in need and the Golden Rule: Treat others how you would like to be treated. These are basic tenants of humanity, we all can agree. But how many of us actually carry them out; how many of us demonstratively match our actions to our words? Forty-five years into this ‘simulated life’ and I am still learning every minute, day – lifetimes.
Growing up it was instilled in me that as helpful as it was to give a man a fish it was far more valuable if you taught him how to fish for himself. A soft-spot for those less advantaged in life, it was innate. Something I never had to specifically learn or be told; it felt natural to me to look after them, almost instinctive. It was as if I was preparing one day to be on that side of the table without knowing how, when, or if. We now have that answer – complimentary wheels included.
It is late 2010s, I am spending my summers living in Europe as a writer. And another three to four months a year traveling the world in my wheelchair, blogging for those whom travel is a challenge. Later I would have an apartment in Amsterdam, Holland, but for much of my time there it is spent in an upper-scale hostel. Hostels are the absolute best for meeting all different type people the world over. Amsterdam: surely a city not lacking in off-the-wall personalities.
This one particular summer I decided to divide my time in Amsterdam into two separate six- week trips. The first would be a bit earlier, in spring, the latter later, into fall. I had never been there for King’s Day, which meant I would be in the city for a time and an event new to me. I had heard it was a wild party but nothing could have prepared me for the mayhem. During the debauchery, shockingly I witnessed a man in the nascent stages of a psychological melt-down.
Later that afternoon in the café, when approached to check his mental state, as he was heavily dosed up on multiple drugs, resulting in adverse ‘Sponge-Bob Square Pants’ type stares, in need of adult supervision, he finally allowed me to talk with him. He would affectionately come to be known as Davo AKA “Crazy Dave.” Davo was a straggly, dreadlock haired down-under wild man, hell-bent on pissing away his newly acquired Australian lawsuit money that summer in Europe.
Each night, at the hostel bar, a gaggle of us would gather to imbibe and indulge decadence. Basically, we were motley group of new friends, from all over the planet, amalgamating as one. Like moths drawn to the magic of ‘the trail’ – sharing understanding and bonding through rich inter-cultural conversation. One night a new guy appeared in the picture – or rather, on the couch. Who was this cat? He looked disheveled – oddly a wee bit dodgy. Something was amiss.
Days passed and he was still there. On the third day, I noticed different people in our crowd ordering food, and when it arrived they would say they were not hungry, pushing the food toward the yet unknown scraggly person, now a part of our ensemble. Later that day I found out that he was from Poland, homeless with nowhere to go each night, other than the streets. Wow, really?! My heart immediately went out to him. But my mind had so many questions.
The next day in the auditorium, a public room with lots of couches and chairs for us to loiter, our group clustered. We would do the same outside the hostel almost every night, on Oostpark. Some days we were there from 11:00 to 03:00 the next morning. Everyone boogied off, doing their thing, leaving only him and I alone. “Hello, what is your name?” “I am Norbert,” he said. He went on to tell me, “I am homeless,” and “I currently live in the park, hidden in the brush.”
Immediately my eyes welled up. I was unsure what I had just heard. He went on to tell me, “Everyone I know steals from me. No one is honest; they all lie to me; take advantage of me.” He continued, “I have no real true friends in life – I am alone on the streets. Currently I live in a park, under a tree, on the dirt.” He explained, “I was squatting on a boat but one morning the owner came home and I had to run, leaving all my belongings there, including my cell phone.”
Before continuing on with the story, let me interject some perspective. I am a spiritual person who has walked through hell to be me. Reading has been an essential tool on my journey. It was also a key part of my recovery and ultimately, healing. It was the foundation needed for writing my first book: Unbreakable Mind. Although I espouse ‘Doing The Dirty Dishes’ of life, sometimes a person just needs a hand extended with love to get them get back up to the sink.
Being a prolific reader (3-5 books a week), and especially since spending my summers living in Amsterdam, I packed a small library to read. One book that I was most enchanted: Altruism, by a favorite author of mine, Matthieu Ricard. A 700 + page yellow behemoth of lessons awaited me. As with all books, there are no mistakes – they come to you at the time meant. And, true of all lessons in life, one must first be receptive to change before any enlightenment is possible.
This book changed me; it affected me in profound ways. The book spoke to my soul, extending deep into my core being – Holy Spirit. I thought I understood altruism but I was tremendously mistaken. It is so much more than simply lending a hand or helping someone. Often it is argued how possible is it to be ‘purely altruistic’ but this book makes the case. It explains the high level of compassion, care and concern needed for the well-being of another to help them in their life.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Well, it was time to put the metal to the grind. What better time to hone an indispensable life lesson? Or simply put, welcome the universe at play with synchronicity. We were both meant to meet one another and speak alone that day. I decided that I was going to step up and show him what it meant to have a good friend, someone who is genuinely concerned with your inner-prosperity, not just today but also the future – someone who wants better for your life, always.
While he was visiting the bathroom I took the opportunity to fold up Euros, placing them under his beer. Being a poor writer did not pay my bills but being a trader did, providing me enough to share. When he returned for a sip of beer he saw it and said, “What is this…Why?” It was hard to play dumb as no one was there to scapegoat action I would have preferred unseen. Aware he was Polish, I asked, “Are you Catholic?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Merry Christmas, early.”
That afternoon he went on to tell me a story of extreme heartbreak. At this time he was ‘on the lam’ from the law in Poland – other friends were not so lucky. Some unfortunate things outside his immediate control happened. He and some friends were working for a wealthy businessman and were not paid. So they robbed his property in order to eat. They worked for two months and were left to starve. All this meant he had no papers, thus living in Holland illegally – a ghost.
“Show me a man without a skeleton in his closet and I will show you a man without virtue. “ – Abraham Lincoln
None of that mattered to me. And at this point helping him with lawyers and legal fees was the least of his worries. He was homeless, living on the streets of a major European city. His biggest daily concerns were primal: food, water, shelter – basic survival. He was living like an animal in the bushes of many a popular park in central Amsterdam, including Vondelpark. Whilst tourists passed by, ignorantly bliss to his dire plight, someone’s son, brother, uncle – was living a hell.
As we sat in the auditorium one chilly spring afternoon on the couch together, drinking beers and eating fries (top 3 in Amsterdam), talking and smiling, he was completely baffled – he wanted to know why I was assisting him in life, why did I chose him? Who was I? He only knew me as the quiet general who liked to eat and drink, puff and chat, meet new interesting people, listen to music and wonder beneath the stars with anyone crazy enough to join the cacophony.
Norbert, “You deserve to have a good friend in life; you merit to be treated with dignity and respect. You are worthy of love and having someone in life that values you and treats you as a real friend – and now you do not have that. You are lacking the primary essentials in life, needs all humans require and warrant. I will be that friend, I will show you that there are good people in the world still, who love others unconditionally and wish happiness for you.” He cried softly.
The thought that someone I had just crossed paths with synchronously needed to be reminded he was human, entitled to respect, kindness, goodness, love, courage, dignity, worthiness, joy, hope and dreams – like every other human on this planet, hit me like a ton of bricks. Searching for an opportunity to marry my actions to my words, the universe provided me an alter: a triple cross, draped in neon. Our lives would be forever altered in time. So many others’ lives too!
Friends suddenly all poured back in, the party was back in full swing. Not ten minutes passed since everyone had gone off for a smoke or to the café to fetch some more beers and two lives, now inextricably intertwined, had universally changed in tremendous ways, setting off ripples of love and goodness, ad infinitum. My heart felt like it never did before; it was electrified. The light that was lit inside of Norbert was clear – he now had a friend for life. His grin said it all.
The next morning I was awakened by a knock at my door at 08:30. Aware the cleaning service was not due in that morning – I was puzzled as to who could be at my door so early. It was Norbert, with a big smile. Over time his constant thirst for living life and daily dose of positivism secretly lifted me up on my most difficult days. He stood there, two large white plastic bags in tow. They were filled with food and shower items – gifts of love. What had just happened? I was stunned.
This slim-shady looking Pole, coming from spending the night sleeping in the local park located adjacent the hostel, without the most basic necessities of life, could only think of me, of how he could make me content. Wow! Are you kidding me? The night before I gave him my room key so he could go have a hot shower. He took note of the fruits and snacks I had on my desk and decided to surprise me with my favorites. The fruit was [always] fresh from the Turkish stand.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears. — Proverb attributed to Buddha
On my return trip that summer, upon arriving at the hostel, Norbert was waiting outside for me. He always had a welcome satchel of treats and bathroom items when I arrived; and travel to-go bag when I departed. From that day forward, to the end of my stay in September, never once did he leave my side. Amsterdam is a big city with dangers, aside from all the drugged up tourists ‘running amok’ in Centrum, home to the Red Light District, where safety is prudent.
A person whose life has been dealt a bad hand but approaches every morning with a glimmer of hope, always overly optimistic the sun will shine tomorrow. He almost has a touch of innocent naïveté. He now had a safe place to keep his bag of life’s belongings, to eat whenever needed, or have a shower and rest. Without ID he could not stay at the hostel; papers are required for proper ID. Often I would give him a pillow and linens to bring to the park to sleep for the night.
Every morning he was at my door – even one day after being stabbed in Oostpark on his way to see me. The greatest helper an injured person could wish, forever a step ahead of me. Always he handled the wheelchair for all Uber rides – endlessly my guardian, always ensuring my safety everywhere we went. He constantly checked locations we patronized for accessibility. He never knew how much that meant. His love and care meant the world to me. I am forever grateful.
We went everywhere together, most times surrounded by other friends from the hostel. Over the next two summers we shared countless memories. We visited museums, exhibitions, the zoo, the beach, went to lunch at fancy places and spent much time in the sun at local cafes, enveloped in conversation. He told me how special all those trips were to him – how they made him feel like a little boy again. He had a hard upbringing in rural Poland where money was tight.
If ever I wished [secretly] to have a little brother in life – I had found him.
Many nights at the start of the relationship he wanted to know why I was so generous to him. Explaining the 700 page opus on Altruism was out of the question. But a story from a past life was not. I told him that most likely in the 1500s, in Europe, I was a poor peasant in trouble, in dreadful need, and he was a rich businessman who took pity on me and my family. This was the universe’s karmic balance. In fact, truth told: he was my helper, an angel – my life teacher.
Not my circus, not my monkeys. – Polish Proverb
But, oh, yes, it is our circus, and they are our monkeys.
The measure of any civilized society is how it treats those who are in need. The measure of an individual is how he/she, through daily virtue and practice, treats those same in need. By which he transcends all differences, helping relieving suffering of others, giving fellow humans hope for days of happiness ahead, assisting others without question or prejudice, eliminating despair and instilling hope, truly caring and concerning for the welfare of others. That is just a start!
Life’s worth and happiness do not come from how many toys or titles you can collect but the good you do in life. We all originate from the same wellspring of humanity. It goes beyond the ethos of a society, squarely at the base of your core values as a person, as a human. Anyone can help another person – Altruism is about transforming their whole life into one that guarantees them the same universal dignity and respect afforded all humanity. It is about service to others.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” The question I have for you at this point of our journey together is, “What is your genius?” – Albert Einstein
There is no limit to what ‘true altruism’ can accomplish. In the end, we are here on this planet to contribute to the betterment of humanity: it is our sacred duty, to the extent our best inner strengths are utilized for the sake of all people. When we die no one remembers our 3000sq meter home but they certainly remember those whom we helped from disparagement, those we supported their greatest inner qualities so as to awaken happiness. That is one’s true legacy.
Everyone within them possesses immeasurable gifts of treasure and promise; it is up to us to tap into that creative light, encouraging others to be their best self – to shine their brightest.
Life is a dance best done together. Thank you for being my partner – your love, Norbert.
Three years on, life is vastly different for Norbert. No longer are the park, jail or prison nightly sleeping options. He now has a full-time construction job, a Polish girlfriend and an apartment replete with friends, in a nice suburb of Amsterdam. He has made progress on the legal front, expecting to get his “papers” within months. He now has dignity, hope, confidence, joy and happiness in his life again. He dreams of one day going to America. I’ll be waiting, arms open.
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