The One Who Got Away

by Loren Cobb

One long ago Saturday morning, I took my bike and explored outside my neighborhood. I was 12, or maybe 13, and filled with boyish energy and innocence.

My family lived at that time in Lahore, Pakistan, in the upscale Gulbarg area, around the corner from a refugee camp. Our house, a stately affair with formal garden in front and walled servant's compound at the rear, was one of a dozen or so along a tree-lined dirt road that ran up to the main canal. At the beginning of the road lay the refugee camp, with single-family hovels scattered around the edge of a common area where boys played cricket and water buffalo grazed peacefully. An enormous shade tree dominated the entrance, dividing our street from the camp. At the foot of the tree was an open-air bicycle repair shop, a perpetual beehive of activity and gossiping neighbors. My normal route to school took me to the left around the repair shop, and then onto the paved road which wound through Gulbarg proper. But today I went to the right.

In Pakistan, as in all Muslim countries, beggars are almost everywhere, quite a shock to newly arrived Americans. In fact, it is usually harder to adjust to the beggars than to any other feature of life in Pakistan — harder than the poverty, harder than the smells, harder even than the heat and flies and lizards and exotic foods. But giving to beggars is sacred in Islam, and realizing this fact is essential for every foreigner. When an American is seen shooing away a beggar, it is understood to be a sign of spiritual emptiness within the American, not as humiliation for the beggar. This lesson I had not yet internalized, and I was still at that awkward stage of embarrassment whenever confronted with an outstretched hand.

Around the tree and to the right I cycled, waving to the boys my age who were fixing flats in the cool shade. I ventured down the next side street, and came to a small intersection. Looking down the crossroad, I felt as though I had suddenly shifted a hundred years into the past. Not a single car or motorcycle was to be seen, only peasants carrying huge loads on their heads, and a very few riding bicycles. The houses that lined the street were small and dirty, and everyone was dressed in rags. I stopped and stared, amazed at finding such a scene within the booming city of Lahore. I now realize I had stumbled into the tiny old village of Gulbarg, hidden away in a small corner within the modern subdivision that had grown up around it and become a suburb of the Lahore metropolis.

An old man emerged from around the corner, bright white eyebrows and white beard accenting his nut-brown wrinkled face. He carried a heavy load of wood on his back, and his sandals were in tatters. He walked right up to me, the rich American kid, held out an ancient hand and muttered a formulaic plea in Punjabi. Unlike my experience with so many other beggars, I sensed immediately a deep and critical need, possibly days-old hunger. I looked in his eyes while he stood straight and looked in mine. Something connected between us, and I was confused by the unfamiliar sensation. I shrugged and shook my head automatically. He turned away, and as he turned he said, "Na, na, na," a remark that I understood as clearly as if he had said in English, "Of course not, you’re only an American, what do you know of hunger."

I stood transfixed for a moment, then realized that the old man had gone. There was nothing to do but return home. His face and his words have haunted me ever since.

Over the years since then, I’ve slowly learned a few things about human pain and suffering. I’ve looked down at the dead body of my best friend, violently killed by an arsonist’s torch. I’ve spent long hours in the middle of the night, helping kids who were tripping their brains out on LSD reconnect with reality and find their place in the world again. I have friends in prisons and mental institutions, and friends who live their lives in mental prisons, suffering invisible tortures of utter panic and despair, knowing more psychic pain in a single night than most people experience in a lifetime. I know several courageous souls who live with divided selves in a single body, for whom "memory" and "self" are concepts more elusive than most people can ever imagine. And through it all, I find a connection that harks back to my boyhood experience with the one who got away, that old beggar in Pakistan.

Sometimes it’s a curious gesture, sometimes a hidden glance or a peculiar turn of phrase, but always there comes a moment when, face to face with a new acquaintance, an entire world of emotional presence and selfhood opens up, and I see as clearly as if in broad daylight the shape and substance of a human soul. I not only see the brave adult front that is presented to the world, but I also see a child playing, a confused teenager, and a baby crying. A part of me reaches out and recognizes each and every one, and a two-way flow begins that nourishes my soul and starts a new friendship.

Some people say they find the voice of God in holy scripture, or embodied in the voice of religious authority, or in that "still, small voice from deep within," accessible only by silent meditation and prayer. For me it is different. My spiritual moments come in those moments of discovery, when I connect with another human being. God speaks to me then not with a whisper but the roar of a mountain stream, sweeping us irresistibly along to an unknown shared experience, just around the bend.

"How can life have meaning, when it is so filled with suffering?" This is an ancient question, which I have had to face many times. Some phrase it in an older way, asking "How can there be a God, when life is so filled with suffering?" No verbal or symbolic answer, no written words, no mathematical formula can ever provide an adequate answer. But I do know how the meaning of life can be lost: if I should lose awareness of that two-way underground river that flows between us, then the meaning of our shared life together (and, in the elder idiom, the grace of God) will have departed from my path.

For life to have meaning, we must all have the experience of "the one who got away," when first we meet the suffering of another human being. This experience is crucial, because it quickens the great rivers that flow between lonely humans, bringing meaning and joy to life.

Copyright © 2000 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved, worldwide.