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At a busy intersection near the mall I often see a man standing on the medial strip begging for money from passing motorists. This is not your typical out-of-work guy, street person or welfare mother asking for charity. This is a black man who has been crippled and scarred, probably from a fire. His legs are skinny and bowed, a hand is missing one finger and bent back at a ninety degree angle to his wrist; his head is bald and the skin discolored in patches; his mask-like face is grotesque and deformed. He hobbles when he walks and his arms stick out at angles.

When he comes up to my car window and I hand him a dollar, he mumbles, “Sorry to bother you,” and stumbles to the next car. As I drive away I ponder his comment. Did he mean he was sorry to ask for money? Did he think his appearance was so frightening, he was sorry to show his face? Was he being ironic and making a comment on charity?

This incident also reminds me about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawkins who has motor neuron disease (ALS) and can do nothing on his own. In an interview he was asked about his life. He replied, “Who could have asked for more!” When I heard this I was at first astounded. Yes, he had fame, his name would be listed in history, he was probably wealthy, but how could that in any way compensate for the state of his health, his life. I would be asking for a lot more, I thought.

It is instances like this that may cause us to ponder why things happen to people. Is it karma? Is it just bad luck? Is there a way we can act, believe, intend that may keep such a fate from our own lives? This then led me to remember a Sufi story in which a beggar dies in the street while a rich man is passing in his carriage. An angel explains that the whole purpose in the beggar’s life (who was a very evolved soul) was to awaken compassion in the rich man’s heart.

In both the street beggar and the physicist we must be careful not to judge the quality of their lives by how they look, their place in society, the state of the physical body. We really do not know what goes on in each person’s soul, the state of grace they may enjoy, the peace of mind they may have. Before we feel sorry for someone in a mistaken feeling of compassion, we should examine the beam in our own eye.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Who can understand the meaning of life or the depth of eternity? Why is one person born healthy, rich and handsome while another has so little? To say it is karma is a facile explanation but most likely not true. As in the Sufi story, maybe those who in our eyes are less fortunate than ourselves have a different and higher mission that we cannot understand.

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