I grew up with a sentence: "One shouldn’t have the heart to harm others, but must be vigilant so as not to be harmed." In Chinese it reads like this: 害人之心不可有，防人之心不可无。
I learned it not only from books, but also from elders. Seemingly, it guides people not to harm others. But it also leaves a shady image of society in people's minds. It says that even though we are kind to the world, there are still people who want to harm us.
We Chinese have a five thousand year history; and from five thousand years of ups and downs; and this saying may be true for quite a lot Chinese people. But now, to me, it isn't true. World is the reflection of heart, of how we approach others, including even those who may want to take advantage of us.
If we approach the world with distrust, with a sense of mean-spiritedness, we are growing a slanting tree in our hearts. This tree cannot give us sweet fruit. Therefore, the second part of the old saying is neither harmonious nor helpful. We need to get rid of the second part of the saying.
I must be honest, though. Just one year ago, I still held this old saying as truth. In China, due to its large population and comparatively unsound social security system, some people turn to homelessness, begging in the street. Ten years ago, most people were willing to give them some change to keep them alive. As time passed by, some people find a commercial opportunity in the begging. They will hire some people to pretend they are beggars, asking money in the day time. In the evening, the "beggars" get off work, handing part of their income to their employers. Then the employer will use this money to have dinner in an upscale restaurant. Therefore, I seldom give money to beggars in the street. I can't tell whether or not they are really the poor. According to the old saying, I had better be “vigilant.”
One day something happened that changed me. When I was studying in Xi'an Jiaotong University, I walked on an overpass bridge, and a lady in dirty cloth suddenly caught a young man's trousers who was walking ahead of me. She begged him to give one yuan to her, only one yuan, which is around 15 cents. She said she had no money on that day, and her child would have nothing to eat that night. The young man stopped for a while, and then kept walking as is the lady didn't exist at all. "Please, please," she said. She almost cried. Her little boy was tied on her back. His skin was chapped from the cold.
I don’t blame that young man, because the fake poor are everywhere in China. But from that lady's eyes, I could read her hopelessness. When I came back to my dorm, I called my boyfriend, telling him when he passed by that bridge, to please give some money to her. But when he arrived there, the lady had already left. Did she get one yuan in the end? Did she have something to feed her boy? The next day, did she beg again, and again receive nothing? I never knew the answer. But she still lives in my mind.
When we are asked for help by beggars in the street, most of us will assume they are cheaters. If they can prove they are really poor, then we may give some money to them. But who can prove that they are truly needy in several seconds? So in most people's eyes, they simply assume that they are all fake beggars.
This leaves a contradiction in people’s hearts. On one hand, they have sympathy for those beggars; on the other hand, they don't want to be cheated, because they are not rich. Little by little, people become numb. The lives of genuinely poor people become harder and harder.
This takes me to the visit we had today with the representative from Heifer International. As you may know, Heifer International is an international development organization which serves the poorest of the poor in many parts of the world. If you are interested, please check out its websites listed among our Friendship links on the home page of JJB. When I heard him, I raised this question: "Heifer is a bridge between the people who want to help others and the people who need help. How does Heifer decide who needs help?"
His answer gave me another way to think. He said the people at Heifer International do not divide the world into those who deserve help and those who do not. Instead they assume that everyone needs help of one sort or another. Of course Heifer International itself is oriented toward helping people who are economically and nutritionally disadvantaged. The people who come to Heifer International in search of help are usually of this kind, and this organization will not say no to anyone who reaches out. They know that they must walk in their shoes before they really understand the truth of the situation. After knowing well about the actual situation, they will lend a helping hand to those poor people.
After I heard him speak I went back and watched some video on the organization’s website. When I saw the smiles on the faces of the people they helped, I felt warm and happy. I felt a little creek running in my heart, leading me to somewhere harmonious. This gave me an idea.
Let's assume that every begging hand on the streets really needs help, including those people who want to use sympathy, use kindness, use love, to get ill-gotten wealth. They do need help, maybe not in physical, but in spiritual. For them, the sympathy and kindness of others has become merely a tool. They can't sense love at all. To some levels, they need more help then the poor.
What kind of help do these people need? If we see them on the street, we must each decide whether or not to give them money. It is possible that the “help” they need is a smile on our face, or a word of encouragement, or even a firm word. But our response must be in a spirit of trust, not distrust; of sympathy, not hatred. The world does not simply exist “out there,” it also exists “in here,” in our attitudes. The world is reflection of the heart.
What can it mean to approach someone who wants to manipulate you and yet to approach them in a spirit of kindness? I think it means that you understand the confusion and perhaps the unhappiness from which they, too, suffer, and also that you see in them a potential to become a better and more compassionate person. This is the Whiteheadian way: to see them in their potentiality and their actuality. Sometimes this mean seeing them in ways they do not see themselves. They think they are “lost” but you seem them as potentially “found.” They see themselves as hopeless, but you see that there is hope for them; and for you, too; and for the whole society.
If a society is to become more compassionate, this compassion must begin at home, in the heart. The first part of the saying is the most important: “You shouldn’t have the heart to harm others.”