One of my favourite stories is the following:
Many many years ago, a rich Englishman partakes on a sunset cruise on the Hooghly River, east of Kolkata, India. The party is a lively affair with music, dance, laughter, and much alcohol. While standing at the stern of the boat, he notices something floating on the surface of the river. He bends over the railing to get a better look at the object and his wallet falls out of his jacket pocket. The slightly drunken Englishman tries desperately to grab at the wallet, only to fall in the river himself. His cries for help goes unnoticed by the crew and people on the boat.
He swims to shore, and as he crawls up onto the riverbank, an elderly man comes to his assistance. Once on shore, wet, mortified at his predicament at finding himself somewhere unknown without any money, the Englishman asks the elder whether he can lend him enough money to pay for transportation back to his hotel. The elder agrees to do this. The Englishman repeatedly assures the elder he will return the money promptly.
The elder tells the Englishman not to worry about returning the money to him. Instead, he instructs the Englishman to give the money to the next person who asks him for help. In this way, the weight of the debt is passed on from one person to another, making everyone stronger along the way.
I hear this story for the first time when I am in my 20s. At that time, what impresses me about the moral of the story is how a stranger can give without wanting anything in return. This idea is invigorating. The story makes me realise that no matter how little money I have, and I definitely have very little money, I can always give to others. I can pay for a friend’s cup coffee, invite a fellow student over to dinner whose student loan hasn’t come through yet, or put a dollar in a street musician’s hat.
In my 30s, I happen to hear another version of the story. One in which the social economical discrepancies between the Englishman and the elder is highlighted. The Englishman is relieved to be able to get out of his disconcerting and embarrassing situation, but it is questionable whether he is able to understand the extent of the elder’s generosity. For the sum of money is small for the wealthy Englishman, yet large for the poor elder; thus painting a situation that is similar to the social economical situation existing between England and India at that time.
In my 40s, a time when my children were still young, the moral of the story became a parent/child analogy. We may have been raised in different cultures, circumstances, or eras as our children, yet we can still share our wisdom with them.
Now, in my 50s, I wonder whether the story isn’t a strategy for growing old. That, when it comes to aging, even the most powerful will occasional be put in situations of needing help, and the most humble of us, in a position where we can lend a hand. And this asking for help and giving what we can, is a smart life strategy. Though the practice of give and take is smart, it is also difficult to comprehend because it is non-linear. When we need help, we must learn to ask for it in a manner and of those that are able to give. And, we should learn to give equally in this manner. We can’t always give from those we take.
Having been raised in an Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Canadian family and society, this concept of give and take is hard to me to fathom. Instead, I’ve been raised with philosophies such as the survival of the fittest, the strong helping the weak, and one hand washes the other. From my momentary point of view, none of these philosophies is applicable in facing the ever-changing challenges we must adapt to in old age. Maybe they were pertinent the first 50 years of my life, but they it is questionable whether they have now become outdated.