Saturday, December 17, 2011

A story from Christmas 1989

Maria sent me a huge zip file of old emails, stories, ramblings, musings, and astonishingly perceptive writings from  Anna when she first moved to Bellingham in 1989 and we became friends. I've been reading them over the last few weeks and continue to be astonished at her ability to both sum up and accurately describe people and events. She could spend five minutes with someone, or read a few pages of their words and then describe them to me so accurately I was often left speechless and unable to respond to the accuracy of her insight. My favorites were what she called her "immorality tales." Here is one for you to enjoy. She wrote it about this time of year in 1989. I remember it as being a bitterly cold winter, her last one.

TWENTY THOUSAND POUNDS OF ORANGES, an immorality tale by Anna Winston, December 1989.

Once upon a time there was a man who thought his life would be oh so much better if only he could magically make all his debts disappear and have extra left to live easily without working. He was sure he deserved this because he helped people all the time and told himself he did it because he was a good man and didn't want anything back.

But it wasn't true he didn't want anything back. He wanted something back. He wanted proof that his goodness wasn't just for the sake of being good, that it would reward him for being good. He didn't want to work for it and he wanted people to think of him as a good person. He wanted to be rewarded for all the times he gave. He wanted his giving to be an investment in his goodness. There was nothing free about it. He expected payment, but was too ashamed to admit it. Besides it did not fit his image of being good for goodness's sake.

As he sat around one day contemplating how to get rewarded for being good and feeling sorry for himself because everyone he was good to was taking so long in being good back to him, another friend offered to sell him twenty thousand pounds of oranges for hardly any money as he was desperate to save his home where the oranges grew wild and free.

Our young man negotiated for the oranges. He knew how much he had to pay in order to turn a nice profit that would allow him to live comfortably without working. It was less than his friend wanted, but his friend was desperate and really, whose fault was it that his friend was desperate? Surely not our young man's fault. He had done nothing but good for people. His karma was pure. He told himself he deserved to pay less so he paid less. His friend's distress was not his fault.

So he ended up with twenty thousand pounds of oranges,more than he could eat in a lifetime. He carefully sat down and figured out the maximum he could charge for the oranges and it was a lot because there were no other oranges and he knew people needed oranges to be happy. He convinced himself he was selling happiness so he asked the most he could get.

It was predictable that hardly anyone bought the oranges, but soon word got around that he had the only oranges in town so the community selected one person to go ask him if he would sell them the oranges at a discount so they could go to the next town that was out of oranges for a lot longer and were more desperate to buy them at any price. Then they could take the extra and buy oranges for themselves too.

Since some of the oranges were starting to rot and he wasn't anywhere near his goal of living without working, he agreed to the discount, which wasn't really a discount since it was a whole lot more than he had paid for all the oranges. But he told himself it was his good fortune to have all the oranges, that he had helped so many people and received nothing in return, that he deserved the riches that came from others desperation.

At first it worked out well. He sold enough oranges to pay off his initial investment and soon it was all profit. He was on his way to his goal of living without working. But then he ran into a problem he never anticipated. The people he had helped, the ones he ended up selling the oranges to, found out how much he really paid for the oranges. They were angry and upset and felt horribly used.

It wasn't that they believed he deserved no profit at all, but that he wanted excessive profit as payback for being a good person. He had invested his goodness and expected it to pay off or why be good? This is what hurt them deeply, that his giving came with a price, that his help was not from the heart but from his ledger book where he kept careful track of what he gave and how and if it came back to him enough to make it worth it.

Many of his friends quit selling his oranges for him and made the choice to give up all oranges since now they tasted bitter with  betrayal and usury. Our young man's oranges began to rot and he began to panic . It didn't matter that he had already earned more than he paid. It wasn't enough that he had made a lot of money without working. He wanted more. He wanted full payment for all the good he had done. He wanted to be rewarded for being a good person.

But he didn't understand that people aren't good because they expect a reward. They are good because it is who they are and instead of expecting a reward, they assume from the beginning that their giving is reward enough. He would never understand this because deep inside of him he was not a good person. He was a greedy person who gave to get.

When his oranges rotted away unsold and uneaten, he told himself he was victim of other people, that he would never help people again because it didn't pay off. He locked himself away from everyone and began to hate the world for not rewarding him for being good.

He blamed everyone for taking from him and never giving back. Soon everyone that he originally gave freely to became in his mind, people who took from him. It was so easy for him to make this leap, this huge jump from altruism to unsatisfied greed because he was raised to believe only things had value.

He died a miserable and lonely old man who stank of rotted, uneaten oranges. But he died with a lot of things. A whole lot of things. Much more than he could ever use or appreciate in a lifetime. It was his reward for being a good person.

With his final breath he cursed those he gave to who never had enough things to give back. Their friendships meant nothing to him. Their love and loyalty meant even less. Those weren't things to him. They were excuses. All that mattered was that he died with the most things and they didn't get his oranges.


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