A symbol is an object that we can see; it is often used by a writer to represent something we can’t see—something that is difficult but important to understand. Retired college philosophy professor John Artibello shows how a poem rich with symbolism by the Indian poet Tagore can help us to discover the road to lasting joy.
Have you ever walked along a main street on the way to school or work and noticed a beggar? Immediately you think, “Oh no. He wants money!” You may think, “I have my own problems. I’m too broke right now. I’ll just hurry by …” But then, you slow down. You notice the humanity in the face of this person, and your heart begins to soften. You reach into your pocket, stop, and give the person enough to buy a coffee or a sandwich.
This was my experience recently, and it was remarkable in that, by giving something away, I was the one who was enriched. I was not prepared for the response to my small gesture. The beggar smiled a deep and happy smile that shook me out of my complacency. In exchange for the money, I was repaid with a kind of joy! And this feeling stayed with me for the whole day.
Joy is not the same as pleasure. The source of joy is deeper than the sources of pleasure. It is usually the product of giving without expecting anything and then being surprised and grateful.
Many of us live in two worlds. There is the head, which is practical, always thinking, always moving forward down the street with our plans and projects. But then there is the heart. Full of surprises. Our individual plans and projects are important. But they are not the whole story. The heart is what makes life worth living. And the heart is more than romantic or sentimental emotions. Think of the word “courage.” It is rooted in the French word for heart, coeur.
There is a wonderful poem written by the Indian poet Tagore. It is about a beggar. On a dusty road in rural India, a beggar sits, hoping that someone will notice him and give him a coin or two. Suddenly a golden carriage appears in the distance. The beggar begins to hope. “Who is this great king or god that is coming my way? Perhaps he will stop and offer me something, maybe a silver coin!” Then, suddenly, the carriage stops and the king puts out his right hand and says, “What have you to give to me?”
“What a joke!” thinks the beggar. A great king asking a beggar for something! Nevertheless, he feels obliged to open his tiny pouch where he finds a single grain of corn, and he gives it to the king. A sense of disappointment and dashed hope sets in. However, this is not the end of the story. The poem ends as the beggar says, “But how great my surprise when at the day’s end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a little grain of gold in the poor heap. I bitterly wept and wished that I had had the heart to give thee my all.”
This is a story about a great reversal. Things are not what they appear to be. The beggar symbolizes all of us. We are all in need of a gift, but we all have something to give.
Each person is a mixture of weakness and strength. Perhaps we give to the homeless because we realize, “This could be me one day.” The poor or sick person, the refugee or disabled show their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their appearances. It can’t be hidden. But they have something very important to give. Humanity!
My reaction to all of this can’t be scripted or laid out beforehand. I am free to stop and allow for encounter, or I can choose to walk by. We may not have a lot of freedom in our everyday lives, but when it comes to my attitudes toward others, I am completely free!
Living from the heart requires more than feelings. It requires a choice—the choice to see people as more than just functions. For example, at the restaurant, I can choose to see the server as more than someone doing a job. She is a person with a heart, who may have children and many difficulties that I do not have. Why not show concern, if only for a brief moment, and share your humanity, the part of you that is your treasure? This is how we discover the secret: the grain of gold that Tagore writes about.
Recently, a planeload of worried passengers arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. As lines began to form at immigration check points, an elderly lady waited, passport in hand, to be questioned by a young immigration officer. Seeing her shaking hands, the officer greeted her with a big smile and said, “Don’t worry dear, you’re home now.” When their eyes met, there was nothing more that needed to be said.
It is not impossible to be fully human. It is not a matter of a special skill or accomplishment. Often it costs us very little to say just the right words, or give something of value without expectation of getting anything in return. Acts of kindness and gifts of the heart, especially to strangers, are what we need to practice. Sometimes we can make the sort of sacrifice that conveys a great message: you are unique, special, and I am happy to know you.
Sometimes when we offer this message to someone who is marginalized or lonely, the payback is enormous. We can discover gifts in ourselves that we did not know we had! And as Tagore says, when we realize the single grain of gold that comes with every such act, we may be tempted like the beggar was, to give our all.
BASED ON THE ABOVE READINGS ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS.
Q1 In your own words, what is the thesis of Artibello’s essay?
Q2 What is the difference between pleasure and joy, according to Artibello?
Q3 Where does the grain of gold in the beggar’s pouch come from? Why do you think it is not clear?
Q4 What did the beggar receive? And why was he so surprised?
Q5 Why do you think the author begins his essay with a reference to a beggar? How do most of us perceive a beggar in our own lives? What is Artibello trying to say about our perception of beggars?
Q6 In paragraph 10, why do you think the author makes reference to a server in a restaurant?
Q7 In paragraph 11, the author refers to the Covid-19 pandemic. What is the significance of this reference in this piece?
Q8 Why does the essay by Artibello end with a final reference to the poet Tagore in the last paragraph?
Q9. The poem by Tagore is rich with symbolism (see the definition of symbolism in the introduction to this essay). Select one symbol that you find enlightening, and relate it to the thesis of the article.
Q10. What is ironic about the poem by Tagore?
Q11. The author mentions in paragraph 8 that “humanity” is something very important that people are able to offer each other. What do you think the author means by the term humanity?
Q12. According to the author, in paragraph 12, we need to work at becoming fully human. What obstacles to this process do we face from society, the media, ourselves, and so on?
Q13. In earlier times, alchemy was attempted as a way to turn cheap metals into gold. Comment on alchemy as a metaphor for inner transformation as it might relate to this essay by Artibello.
Q14. Describe an incident of giving where you discovered something important about yourself. What did you discover? (If it helps to jog your memory, think about the recent Covid-19 pandemic.)
Q15. In a paragraph or an essay, explain why is it so difficult to believe that what will make us happy is giving and not taking.
Q16. Some people who experience a brush with death reveal that their lives have changed for the better. What do you think often changes in their lives, and how might it relate to Artibello’s essay?
Q17. One of the themes of Tagore’s poem is that service to humanity as opposed to narcissism is what makes a person truly human. What are three symbols in Artibello’s references to Tagore’s poem that contribute to this understanding? What does each symbol represent, and what is the connection between what it represents and the above theme?
Chapter Introduction A symbol is an object that we can
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