Think about it: If you had to choose, would you rather be a jerk or naive? A cynic or sucker?
"Cynic!" answers in unison my demographic of over-educated, urban-dwelling, political progressives. After all, cynical irony is the hipster credo, and no one wants to be mistaken for a rube. Smart is the new black, and you'd rather be hardened than foolish.
And "Cynic!!" repeats my demographic of expats, aid workers and world travelers Here too, cynicism marks you as a respected "old head," someone who's been around so long you're no longer impressed by cultural differences and cannot be taken for a fool. You view the wide-eyed wonderment of the newcomer with disdainful irritation. You're no longer her.
Culturally, I'm firmly part of these camps, which both wear cynicism like a badge.
But I'm also closet sucker.
Here's the story:
The other day when I was walking into the grocery store, I was approached by a man. He was neatly dressed with an undercurrent of exhaustion, sweating and wiping his brow repeatedly. He greeted me like he knew me and I was a bit embarrassed that I didn't recognize him. "I sweep the grounds at Marigold school, where your son goes." he explained.
Nothing funny so far. People here are big into greetings, and as a minority we're often recognized.
His agitated state was explained as he launched into a horrible tale about his wife who, just the other night, was killed while riding on a motorbike right around the corner from where we stood. He pointed to the very spot, where a woman was seated selling roasted maize, and described the car that hit her, a silver Prado. He was running around that day trying to collect enough money to get the body released from the morgue when he recognized me.
I think: Holy flipping s*#t!!! That's horrible. But sadly, I've come to know in my 2 years here, not uncommon. Traffic accidents take as many lives as dreaded tropical diseases. We knew a child who was killed by a motorbike driver last year, and just yesterday a minivan, that our friend's daughter just missed boarding, crashed and killed 6. And I've also learned that raising enough money to liberate a body from the morgue is financially crippling for a lot of families and can significantly delay funerals. His tale might sound tall elsewhere, but not here.
And asking an extended network of people for help from anything from weddings to funerals to medical bills is a common and often organized practice. I'm in a culture in which people survive by leaning on each other and there's no real taboo around asking for help.
But... but.... Then there's this nagging thought springing from my inner cynic, which says: Are you kidding? This is a perfect story. Tragic with an immediate need. You've been approached in the US with elaborate stories of woe and knew them to be scams. He's seen your car, that you have money. Don't be taken for a fool. Most true cynics stop here and walk away.
But then this voice, which always seems to get me, counters: Well.... What if it is true? And if it is, a few dollars, which you won't even miss, could make a world of difference to this person. Moral calls of "What Would...um... My Agnostic Conception of Spiritual Prophet... Do?" ring in my ears. I want to err on the side of good.
Most people have rules about this. Just adopt a policy about never giving to strangers so you never have to struggle with indecision. They say, donate to organizations that you know are doing some good. But this wasn't a total stranger and I already donate and volunteer. Those organizations are not going to help him out here.
So, what did I do? I gave him a little money and walked away with my trusting and cynical natures still battling each other.
And what did he do? Well, I don't know.
I should end this here and save my pride, but the truth is, I found out later that he did not work at my son's school. I was scammed. I was taken.
But he didn't take my inner sucker. I like her. I like the world she wants to believe in. I like that she keeps me from becoming too jaded and spurs me to do good in the world. I think I'll keep her around. Even if it costs me a few shillings once in a while.
How do you treat these situations? Are other people as ambivalent as I am? Would you rather be a cynic or a sucker, jaded or trusting?