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
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
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
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
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 lives.
For 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
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. For more information, please visit http://fluffygroovy.com.
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