Sunday, November 05, 2006

Chance encounter

The city is a place for multiplying happy chances and making the most of unplannable opportunities.

Lewis Mumford

Ten years ago I discovered the remarkable book An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin. This was published in 1994.This is an investigation of emotions and personal relationships which looks at how people, past and present, escape from loneliness, fear and aimlessness, find new forms of affection and adventure, and can avoid being prisoners of their memories or mistakes.

Here’s the final section of the book.

‘My life is a failure.’ Those were the words with which I began this book, and I finish it with the story of a murderer who repeated that phrase many times, until one day …

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 the 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 Emmaus 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. But it is careless to do so without remembering how previous efforts have failed, and how it has never been possible to predict for certain how a human being will behave. History, with its endless procession of passers-by, most of whose encounters have been missed opportunities, has so far been largely a chronicle of ability gone to waste. But next time two people meet, the result could be different. That is the origin of anxiety, but also of hope, and hope is the origin of humanity.

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