Up Against It

A Morning Mind Essay

In Queretero, Mexico several years ago, there was a tiny Indian woman who begged for money every morning in front of the cathedral. She wore tattered faded clothing, and her skin was rough and wrinkled. She sat in a motionless upright posture, her legs to one side and gathered under her, her right arm in a begging position with the hand cupped, almost like the mudra monks hold in meditation. Her gaze was toward the ground, her eyes nearly closed. In all the monasteries of the world there wasn’t a better sitter.

She was fully engaged: if you leaned to put money in her hand, she looked up and radiantly beamed, thanking you. Otherwise she reacted to nothing, though she seemed to take in everything. She was a dynamo of energy, perfectly calm and still.

I’ve thought of that woman often since then (even gave her a cameo in a novel I wrote that summer): that was her life. She dressed in her threadbare clothing every day, walked from wherever she lived to the cathedral. If she got money, she ate; if not, she went hungry, though I have a feeling she did well. There was another beggar near her, a middle-aged man, who accosted passersby aggressively, as if he wanted to drive them away. There were other women—ubiquitous on streetcorners in Mexico—who looked at passersby with a sad-eyed, pleading gaze. But the tiny woman at the cathedral had a quiet dignity. Giving money to her was a blessing. Giving to the others was dropping it into a bottomless pit.

In the vicinity of that same church was a man who had been horribly deformed at birth. He had almost no arms and legs, and even his torso was diminished in size; he lay on his back in a little box someone had made for him. God only knows what his life had been. But instead of begging for money, or railing against his fate, he had an insatiable curiosity about—and apparent love for—everyone around him. When someone stopped to give him money—which he couldn’t even take, since he had no functioning hands—he would ask where they were from, what they were doing in his town; he was full of questions and a genuine goodwill. Money poured into that box.

The old woman and that little man in the box had faith; other beggars didn’t. They scrambled on the side of a ravine, clinging with their fingernails. She sat serenely in a crevice, somehow—though it was a long way down for her too—not worried at all.

She was—they were all—up against it, a phrase I hadn’t heard for years until my sister used it with me the other day. She is 68 years old, looks in her mid-fifties, was apparently in perfect health, and suddenly found out she had stage four lung cancer, in the same week that her 75 year old husband had a sudden onset of dementia—with virtually no warning—and had to be put in a rest home. It was like a train wreck, she said. It was unbelievable, except that it had happened.

I’m up against it, she said. She certainly was.

Many people in this world are up against it every day. They are one paycheck, one day’s work, one donated coin, from tumbling into an abyss. They are up against the wall those beggars were scrabbling on, and where the old woman sat.

That is the truth of the human condition: we have no idea what the next day or next moment will bring. It is in that sense that the poor are blessed (as Jesus famously said): they have a ringside seat on the void. If you stare into that long enough, stare into it hard, you find that it contains all the blessings of the universe, and that we have everything we need, without seeking anything. But you only see that if you stare. If you’re scrambling up the side trying to get away, you never know.

The old woman in front of the cathedral knew.