The Power of Contrast
By Hrvoje Butkovic
A few weeks ago, I’ve had the privilege of meeting an extraordinary person. It was a chance encounter. I was walking to a nearby store and she was going in the opposite direction. She waved to get my attention, and then handed me a piece of paper.
The written message said that she was mute and so couldn’t explain her situation in her own voice, but that she was trying to buy a birthday cake for her four-year-old daughter and would be grateful for any contribution that I could give her.
Such requests are commonplace in the city of Johannesburg, where I live. Far more people have moved here looking for work than the city is able to accommodate. Those unable to find employment often resort to providing odd street services in a desperate attempt to secure whatever income they can, or simply beg.
Over the years, I’ve grown weary of giving them money. It’s hard to tell what they are going to do with it. I’m sure that some use it to buy food and other necessities, but there are also those who spend it on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
Looking at the written request for money that would seemingly be used to buy a birthday cake, I decided not to take the chance. I offered to buy her the cake instead. The inconvenience was minimal as I was already on my way to the shops. She could come with me and choose the cake that she wanted. Best of all, it would ensure that the money really was used for the stated cause.
I half-expected her to turn down my offer, confirming my fears of what she was really after. To my surprise, she eagerly accepted. The enthusiasm that radiated from her face dispelled any residual doubts I might have harboured about the honesty of her request. I resumed my walk to the shops with her.
Once there, I left her in the bakery section and went on to do my own shopping. She found me a few minutes later, a beautifully decorated pink birthday cake in her hands. I could almost imagine the smile on her daughter’s face when she saw it. I confirmed that I would buy it for her, leaving her to go back and sort out the packaging. I thought that was the end of the matter.
The error in my assumption was revealed some ten minutes later, when she came back and handed me another piece of paper. The new message explained that, as much as she would have loved to buy the cake for her daughter, they needed regular food more. The same hopeful look returned as she showed me a Christmas hamper that she had found. It contained a variety of food that they needed, and it was currently discounted.
I was taken aback by the request. It suddenly became clear to me what this was about. They needed food, plain and simple. She was so desperate to get it that she was willing to sacrifice her dream of celebrating her daughter’s birthday with a cake in order to get it.
I couldn’t bring myself to turn down her new request. In fact, instead of simply agreeing to buy her the hamper, I asked whether she would rather have the hamper and the cake. Her eyes opened wide with shock. Apparently, the idea had not occurred to her. Later, when I picked up the hamper and realised that it was quite light despite its bulky appearance, I suggested that she might want to get another one.
I could tell from the tears that she was trying to hide that it was a very special day in her life.
It was a very special day in my life, too. Ever since the chance encounter with a beggar woman at a road intersection years ago, I’ve understood that it was the giving of what we had at times and in situations where it was needed that enabled us to experience its bounty. Be it material wealth or prized skills, it was their application for the upliftment of other people that enabled us to feel plentiful ourselves.
What I hadn’t understood then was why this should be the case. Why was it that, if I wanted to experience abundance, the most effective way was through others, by causing them to feel abundant? Why couldn’t I do the same for myself? The answer eluded me until the clue was provided again, this time by the lady with two Christmas hampers and a birthday cake. That clue was the necessity and the power of contrast.
It is change that makes experience possible, and the extent of change that drives its intensity. A kind word passes unnoticed in a flurry of praise, yet carries the power to stop a heated argument. Habitual success is hardly worthy of special mention, but let it occur in the midst of failure and it becomes something to celebrate.
The question of how best to experience abundance translates into the question of how to create the deepest contrast between an affluent present and the memory of a destitute past.
This is very difficult to achieve in our own livesFor the vast majority of people, acquisition of wealth is a very gradual process. Whatever possessions, skills and mindsets have enabled us to acquire the wealth that we currently have also stand in our way of rapidly acquiring more. Even if our life story is one of going from rags to riches, chances are that it has taken many years to accomplish. The passage of time dulls the memory of whatever contrast we might have had.
When it comes to material wealth, the most effective way to create pronounced contrast in our own lives is probably by winning a fortune, especially with lottery. The change is immediate and dramatic. It enables us to have a profound experience of abundance by looking at nothing more than our own lives, at what we can do now that we couldn’t do before. Unfortunately, it is not up to us to make it happen. It resides beyond our control, and might not grace us even once.
Experiencing abundance through other people suffers from none of these shortcomings. Because we experience abundance by giving rather than hoarding, the limitations that are holding us back from acquiring further wealth – be it lack of tools, skills or a self-defeating mindset – no longer apply. Nor does the extent of our possessions. We don’t need to have a lot to give to find someone who has even less, and to whom such a gift would make a world of difference.
The two hampers and the cake that I bought for that lady had cost me less than the daily grocery shopping for my own family. The gift was negligible from my point of view, yet it was beyond her reach. The worldview that governed her notion of what was possible was clearly much more restrictive than mine. So restrictive, in fact, that the possibility of acquiring both a hamper and a cake did not occur to her until I pointed it out.
When experiencing abundance through other people, there are two sets of limitations in play. The person who is giving is restricted by what he has and what he believes he can afford to give away. The person who is receiving is similarly restricted by what she has, what she still needs, and what she believes she can or cannot have.
The experience of abundance arises from the contrast between what the receiver believes she can have and what the giver believes he can give away. The greater the gulf, the more intense the resulting experience. The receiver experiences abundance by having her perceived limitations blown away and finding herself in possession of wealth that she didn’t think possible. By sharing in her experience, the giver comes to know himself as the source of that wealth, which now seems to hold far more worth than it ever did before.
The effectiveness of experiencing abundance through other people stems from the ease with which we can achieve the necessary contrast. Instead of having to transform our lives by acquiring sought-after riches in record time, we can find someone to whom our present circumstances appear unbelievably prosperous and transform their lives by a simple and modest act of giving.
Perhaps the most rewarding facet of this approach is that it never runs out of opportunities. No matter how many people we may have helped, there are always other people in need and other situations that we can tap to make each experience unique, and thereby fresh and profoundly desirable. It is perhaps the most rewarding use that we can put our wealth and talent to.
Hrvoje Butkovic is the author of A Glimpse of Another World, which is a social commentary in a science fiction setting.