The converted beggar: What is belief?


mahmood delkhasteh
by mahmood delkhasteh

In 2002, my wife had to return to Kyrgyzstan in order to do field work for her thesis. She had already spent two years there when she helped to establish the sociology department at American University Central Asia (AUCA); this time we both of travelled there. This journey proved to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life, most importantly because I had the pleasure of working with some of the smartest, hard-working and decent students I have ever met. Also, observing first-hand the collapse of an empire and its devastating effect on people's lives was nothing less than a shock. Importantly, since I left Iran in 1984 I had never been so close to my land. I don't mean just geographically, but culturally, as I emotionally and culturally I felt so close to my friends, students and people there. The feeling of closeness, despite being away for a long time, has not weakened a bit as we were able to establish long lasting friendships.

Anyway, when I was there I began to write letters to my friends, entitled 'Observations and Reflections.' I am going to publish a few of them here. Here is the first one.

The converted beggar

There is a shop, where on the way back from university we do part of our shopping. The prices are higher and it is not a place of shopping for people with average income. Therefore, it is viewed as a good spot for beggars to sit out there, expecting some rich customers (!) to give them some of their change. A little boy and an old lady are almost permanently present there. The boy mostly opens the door for the customers with a big kind smile, expecting to receive one or two pence from some of the customers in return. A little bit further there is an old lady, wrapped up, sitting in the freezing cold on the shop’s stairs, with a little box in her hand so people put money in it. We normally give her more money. Last week as Sarah gave her some money, the lady started to talk to her for quite a while and after that she showed her an old pamphlet. Sarah, as polite and shy as she is in this kind of encounter got involved in the talk. I was very cold and standing there motionless, maintaining a big friendly smile on my lips, which was making me feel even colder. I couldn’t ask Sarah to wrap up the conversation, since the last thing, in the bitterly cold night, I wanted was to offend the lady.

Finally Sarah could pull herself out of the situation and after the farewells she told me that the lady was trying to convert her to Christianity (as if she had not grown up going to Catholic school)! Hearing that somehow made me feel good, knowing that someone, having worked all her life and now at her old age living in such poverty that in order to survive has to sit outside in bitterly cold and dark nights, wishing to earn the pity of some people for a small amount of money in return … and still retains, or finds some belief, which gives her life meaning. It is a meaning, which she is so sure of that she even tries to convert others to it. I thought of Marx’s famous words on religion, not the sentence where he says religion is the opium of the masses, but the phrase that comes just before it: religion is the soul in a soulless world.

She has hope, a very certain and dignified hope. She suffers here but she is rewarded in the other world, and that makes her suffering meaningful. That is the magic of religion, it can make the bitter taste sweet and that is the very point of danger. As Buddha believed, religion is like a snake: if one knows how to handle it, it cures, and if one doesn’t know then it kills. Tonight I saw her again, under snow with her freezing hands, she was counting the paper pennies in her box (here, change is in the form of paper). That hurt me deep and somehow made me feel guilty. Guilty of being a human, guilty of seeing suffering and the feeling of maybe I could do more. And guilty of despite observing this suffering, I can still enjoy my soothing and creative love relationship with my wife. What made the feeling of guilt even less palatable was the feeling that she believes her suffering is the price of her salvation, and that makes her feel content.

I don’t believe in that, I never did, and never believed that there is a necessary relationship between this kind of suffering, which is a direct result of the failure of the socio-economical system, and salvation. This kind of suffering is human made and could and should and must be avoided. I do not believe in the common definition of salvation anyway. Don’t misunderstand me! I don’t mean there is nothing out there. I do believe in that and I do believe in it intensely. As I do not believe death is the end of our story. Not by any means; I have achieved this belief through the combination of fierce intellectual enquiry and mystic experiences when through timeless moments, I became connected with life; not only my intellect understood it but also my entire shivering being became drowned in it. Salvation for me is nothing but to do justice to ourselves, to free ourselves from anything, which prevents us from achieving the excitement of living life in its fullest, to actualise our potential. Salvation for me is the state when we move out of power relations and overcome our ego, arrogance and fear. Then after achieving life in “negative freedom” we will make ourselves capable of living in total freedom and development. That is salvation for me.

You can ask what is the relationship between what I just discussed and the story of the Old Lady? I am not sure what the relation is, but what I was trying to get at was to do some digging in the relationship between her belief, which I don’t share, and the way it affects me. Maybe the gap of experience of suffering and interpreting it lessens the feeling of misery, and as she feels less miserable, then that gives me more reason to feel less guilty. But that is not right. Maybe it is right for her since she may even enjoy the suffering she endures, but how about me? I should be glad when she feels less pain even if it is for a wrong reason. Wrong reason? From whose point of view? I don’t know, I have to think about it more.

Talking about belief, let’s have some definition of it. What is belief? A believer is one who believes that life is goal-oriented, and whose goal stands outside the material world. And that is the crux of the problem. For a positivist, who only believes in observable and specific methods of enquiry, that kind of belief is nothing less than superstition. However, positivism itself, which till some decades ago and at its prime would reject religious belief out of hand, is in deep crisis. The old consensus among scientists is broken. Among other reasons is the rise of quantum physics, which has opened a new “invisible!” field of enquiry. Gradually positivist science is becoming humble. Grudgingly, like the IQ test, which learnt that it just measures what it does and nothing more, positivism also understands and learns to recognize its limits, and the fact that there are other fields of knowledge and different methods for achieving truth, which, for the time being, stand outside the positivist understanding of science. And belief in the goal-oriented ness of life is in the centre of it.

Still, what is belief? In my view “belief” is not a monolithic entity. In order to understand belief one has to de-construct it to its ingredients. So far I deconstructed belief to five ingredients, which are: love, fear, wonder, doubt and hope. In different stages of enquiry of a seeker, one or two ingredients become more accentuated. Maybe it could be argued that “belief” starts from the feeling of “wonder,” it germinates in “hope,” it becomes absolute in “fear,” it develops in “doubt,” and it flowers in “love.” However, the move towards belief is not linear and each ingredient independently or in combination with other ingredient(s), could become the point of start, the movement and the end. These ingredients are intertwined to such an extent that separating them in order to study them is a Herculean task.

In general, in my view, this is the main cause of misunderstanding among philosophers, psychologists and social scientists. The majority of them, in order to understand interpret and explain “belief” in human societies, have reduced “belief” to only one of its ingredients and that is the main cause of the problem. It is like the blind men and the elephant in Rumi’s tale. Each has touched a different part of the animal and therefore has developed a different perception of it. (I’m glad I am not writing an article about that since I would have needed lots of research for finding references!!)

However, since having met the old converted lady, I realized that I might be able to add another ingredient to belief, which is “desperation.” She, like millions of other old pensioners here, worked all her life and maybe even believed in the ideology of the state and laboured towards the construction of the heaven of socialism. Suddenly out of nowhere saw everything around her has collapsed. Dreams shattered, beliefs destroyed, life in its present sense in a matter of a few weeks suddenly became a thing of a past. And all this happened at the time when she was preparing herself for a cosy retirement. Now she has to live on a meagre pension and even that is not paid. [Note from Sarah: pensions in Kyrgyztan range from 200 soms ($4.50) to 800 soms ($17.00) per month. These are often not paid, or are paid months late or ‘in kind’ with flour and cooking oil.] A proud Russian lady has become an impoverished pensioner who is forced to beg in order to survive. She is desperate to make sense out of it. That is not fair! She repeats it to herself countless times. Why did all this happen? There should be a reason, there must be a reason. Socio-political explanations don’t convince her and even if they do, it doesn’t change the fact: it is not fair! The missionaries arrive, with all of their sincerity, dignity and their doubtless, rigid and absolute belief. And within their explanation of suffering she finds her answer. She is desperate to believe that her fall from grace and the pain she suffers should have a reason, a good reason. And…. and that might be one of the reasons that she started to believe. Maybe.


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