One afternoon several years ago, my doorbell rang unexpectedly and when I opened the door, I saw an old woman standing outside, a child of four or five clutching her skirt. She was shapeless as a bale of cotton. Her voice was a piteous wail: did I have any old clothes for her or the little one, she was too poor to buy any. Indeed, her coat had seen seasons innumerable, and whatever the color might have been originally, it now was a light purple with a greenish shine, and so threadbare as to be practically useless against the cold. A few strands of unwashed hair had worked their way out of the greasy scarf she wore around her head, adding to the unkempt overall picture. Her swollen feet were spilling over the edges of her shoes. She and her grandchild apparently had been trudging from house to house for hours though, judging from the almost empty bag, without much result. The little boy was pale and tired, and someone should have wiped his nose a long time ago.
Though the sun was shining, it was still quite cold, a typical northern European spring day. An icy gust of wind engulfed all three of us while I was still debating how I could help, and I said: "Won't you come in for a moment while I look for something you could use?" That did not fall on deaf ears and soon the grandmother was settled in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee, and the child provided with a glass of milk and a handkerchief. But if I had thought I might search my wardrobe in the meantime, I had been quite wrong: once seated she began to talk, and obviously nothing would stop her.
The prevalent affluence tends to pacify our conscience with the thought that everybody is so much better off nowadays; yet here I was face to face with a reality that totally belied such a rose-colored premise. More pitiful than her material poverty, however, was the old woman's account of moral degradation, and of the abuse and insults she had to endure from her own family and from the people at whose doors she went begging. As she was well on in years, her mind had evidently lost a little of its grip. She repeated herself a few times, and my attention was slowly beginning to wander. Only half listening now, I looked at her more closely. Allowing for a general state of neglect and the ravages of time and a hard life, you could still see she had once been quite handsome: the bone structure of her face was fine and her eyes were an unusually deep blue. Even if misery were all that was left in her old age, surely she too must once have experienced some happiness and joy.
Suddenly there was a pause in the soliloquy as my visitor took a few sips of coffee. Our eyes met for three intense seconds and, as in a flash, I realized I was not seeing a poor, battered old woman I had never laid eyes on before, but myself. Differences in age, circumstances or personality became ephemeral, yes, even laughable. Outwardly it might seem that we walked divergent paths, but in the depth of both of us burned the same flame of divine spirit. In that brief moment of understanding I knew that the inner identity I perceived was a reality; our separate individuality, to which we attach such importance, only a fleeting illusion. Because we were one, nothing could touch her without some part of myself being aware of, and affected by it. Moreover, I saw that I was each of the uncounted billions of myselves on this earth and, in turn, they found their reflection in me. A cry of anguish or a shout of joy uttered by any one of them must, I felt, reverberate through the inner realms of the entire human kingdom — for we are all one.
The wornout garment of the old woman, the shocking facts she related — they all faded into the background as so many badly painted props when a great actor takes the stage. Behind the mask of the persona I had sensed, for a moment, her true self and could only salute it for having had the courage to select this difficult part: however inglorious, it had taught her things for which many whose lives run more smoothly might envy her. The inner man cares nothing whether its role calls for coarse rags or a velvet cloak.
Soon my visitors left, warmed and rested, and with a bag that was a little heavier to carry — but they did not mind that. At the door I involuntarily said: "Thank you." That puzzled the old woman, though not for long, for she knew people were odd. Then she gave me a big smile, and the whole bright blue sky of that windswept March day reflected itself in her eyes.
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)
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