In the village where I lived my entire life, the roads were made of dirt and mud. Those people who could afford to, built their homes from brick or block, cement, and corrugated metal. Those who could not, build theirs of wood, metal scraps, and mud. Nobody had more than four sets of clothing: two for summer and two for winter. Many had only one. Some people had shoes; others did not.
I suppose by some standards, we lived in poverty, but since we had no idea how others lived, we had no basis of comparison, and so we never thought of ourselves as poor. Ultimately, it made no difference to the lives we lived, the lessons we learned, the love we shared, the pain we suffered. The human condition is the same everywhere.
Even among those who have so very little, there were the haves and the have-nots. My family was in the middle. We went hungry from time to time, but mostly that was because of the weather, when the crops didn’t do well, or the animals starved. But then, most everyone suffered during those times, as well.
I never felt myself poor. We were not so different from most everyone we knew. I never longed for more. I was content.
From the time I was a young girl, I enjoyed observing people, watching how they behaved, how they socialized with others. In my small village, everyone knew everyone. Keeping secrets was impossible. We knew who was happy in their circumstances and who was not, and why. We knew who loved unrequitedly, who held a grudge, who envied whom. We knew who was stupid and who was wise, who was selfish and who was magnanimous, who could be relied on when you needed help and who you could count on to stick the knife in deeper.
From an early age, these personalities, these relationships, these behaviors fascinated me.
There was an old baker in the village who had built his brick oven himself, long before I was born. All the women brought their bread and larger meals to be cooked there. None of them could have built such a hot fire at home because it would have been impossible for a woman (even with the help her children) to collect that much wood. It was difficult enough to gather enough to keep a house warm in winter. A fire in the small stove might be enough only to heat a pot of water for tea or to boil an egg or to keep a pot of bits and scraps cooking until it became soup. Of course in the summer, it was too hot to keep a fire going inside. And so we had a communal bakery.
Every morning, the wives or their young daughters or sometimes a servant, brought their kneaded loaves or other ingredients to the baker, to be cooked together with everyone else’s. The old baker, who everyone called Grandfather even though he had no children of his own, also sold his own bread and buns and some savories and sweets, which some villagers bought as well.
Grandfather was a nice man with a good soul. Everybody liked him. If a family could not pay, he would never shame them. He would tell them kindly to pay when they could, even when he knew he was likely to never be paid at all. It was not in his heart to let anyone starve if he could help it.
When I was about 8 years old, there was a young man in the village who worked for the baker. He was very full of his own worth, full of important advice for everyone, always telling others the best way to run their businesses even though, he, himself, had no business of his own. He was always telling Grandfather how to improve things, but Grandfather had been in business since before this young man was born, and he did not appreciate the unsolicited advice.
Others advised the young man to mind his tongue and do his job, for the old man would eventually pass away and then he could take over the business and do with it whatever he wanted. But he could not wait. So, he moved away to the city, which was very far. He worked there for a few years at something (nobody really knew) until he had saved enough money to start his own bakery in the village.
When he came back, he built his own oven. In front, he built a low wall to create a kind of outdoor room. There he put some tables and chairs. It became a kind of spontaneous café for men to gather, to drink strong tea and eat a small cake or two, to smoke, to play cards, to discuss politics and religion.
The young man thought he was very clever because now he had both a bakery and a café, and was sure he could make twice as much money as Grandfather. The fact is, the bakery was where all the profit was. A café didn’t earn much. These men sat all day with one pot, always asking for more hot water.
In his foolishness and ignorance he expected the village women to flock to his bakery, which was larger and of course newer and offered some social activity. What he failed to consider, was that the women did not want to pass through a group of men, on their way to the oven. These women worked hard. They gathered wood and carried water from the well. They minded the small animals. And the children, too, of course. They worked like donkeys from sunrise until everyone in their families was safely asleep. These women resented working hard while men sat idle. They did not want to be reminded of it. It made them bitter. And so, they avoided the place.
Soon, with no customers for his oven, the young man could not keep his business open. He lost everything. Ashamed , chastened, and once again poor, he left the village for the city once more. I never saw him again but I thought about him a lot.
He had failed because he was a bad judge of human nature, including his own.
That was the first time I understood how tragic a human flaw it was not to understand others; how much more successful someone could be in life if they paid close attention to the needs and desires of both their friends and enemies.
And from then on, I made it a point to study others and to understand what they wanted most deeply. I quickly learned this was rarely what it appeared to be on the surface. A man might start an argument with someone of a higher status not because he was angry at the man but because he resented his own low standing. To win such an argument was to steal some of that man’s power. A woman might want a new piece of jewelry from her husband not because she needed more finery, but because it showed others that her husband valued her. She craved the status of that; not his actual love.. A girl might act aloof or tease a boy, not because she wants to hurt him or push him away, but because she likes him and doesn’t know how to express her own feelings.
Like everywhere, people desired the same things: love, power, status, freedom from pain and discomfort. And like everywhere, they often went about getting them the wrong way.
I observed these things closely all my life, and I thought about them as I went about my days. And the more I understood, the more things made sense to me. I didn’t get upset when people behaved badly because I could see through it to the real reason, and I had compassion.
Many people came to me, asking for my advice. And from where I sit now, I still believe it was good advice.
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