The ability of Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma (founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba) to make headlines around the world is no longer news. Just as the world extols his latest act of kindness – a USD20 million donation to the University of Newcastle as a tribute to his Australian “father” and mentor – it brought to mind a story even closer to home, a story I have been meaning to share.
Almost a month ago today, as Sydney woke up to a toasty mid-summer morning brimming with hopes of a new year, I woke up to the chill of my own consciousness. A man known locally as Sydney’s Shoeshine Brian has died in his sleep. In the grand of scheme of things, the event itself was uneventful (albeit tragic). Sydney Morning Herald dedicated its front page, but its ripple effect was confined to those who remembered him, as the article was soon buried by other worldly news of the day. News of his passing nonetheless sent shockwaves through me, for reasons or sentiments which were not immediately obvious, even to myself that day.
Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall is the retail heart of the city, a bustling strip of materialistic excess rivalling the likes of New York’s Fifth Avenue, Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay or Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysees. Its prominence is a nod to the rise of the middle class and the rise of Sydney as a tourist mecca. Its prominence enshrouds the city in a surreal halo, a halo in which a solitary homeless man – by the name of Brian Rudd – would carve out a niche for himself as the perennial Shoeshine Brian. Come rain, hail or shine he had occupied the pavement, derelict in his attire, but never derelict in spirit. I had walked past him almost daily, my business attire and heels making an inept contrast to his unassuming life on the streets (funny that it was I who often felt out of place). As a firm believer that non-intrusive voyeurism always makes for a great pastime, I’d observed him in my peripheral vision, bent over as a human “Z”, an emblem of human frailty and fortitude.
In all our “encounters” over the years, I never once stopped to make conversation, or offered him a chance to showcase his skills.
It was only his passing that prompted me to frantically Google his plight. Separated from his parents as an infant and put into care, the system failed him again at seven when they separated him from his brothers (he would never see them again). He deemed begging to be beneath him, and took a shine instead to shining the shoes of passersby. In due course, I would learn of his admirable wit, too, and the street-smarts he’d honed thanks to the harsh reality of the school of life.
At first blush, it would seem a stretch to draw any parallels between Jack Ma and this nondescript, homeless man. But it was Jack Ma and his tale of a compassionate Australian family that made me confront my own feelings on that January morning.
It was that of shame!
I consider myself a compassionate human being; I feel the pain of others even when I’m numb to my own. In all these years, however, it had never occurred to me that Compassion was a switch which I had been turning on and off at inexplicable intervals. It seems even terribly contrived, that I am penning this post during one of my volunteering shifts at a Sydney homeless shelter. As a volunteer, I donned my hat of Compassion with pride, forever eager to please and eager to be of service. Why then, do we seek out the comforts of cold passivity when the hour has passed?
Alas, have we turned into a society of closet altruists? Is it plausible that we have a secret reservoir of Compassion which has no outlet in a society that flaunts self-interest and “winning” as veritable virtues? Under such societal pressures, we have become so engrossed in the fear of rejection – of not having our feelings reciprocated – that we consciously hide behind our cool, calm and collected exteriors and sit on the fence. Why else would we demand that an act of kindness be bestowed upon us first before we serve it back?
Regrettably, my realisations have come too late to be of any help to Shoeshine Brian. Though Compassion is never too late. Let us be kinder to each other. Let us extend an act of kindness, be it random or targeted, be it USD20 million or USD20. If we are not compassionate by nature, I genuinely hope we can be compassionate by nurture.
After all, there’s no place for Regret in Heaven; let’s start by eradicating Regret on Earth.