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Ego, or Reflection Upon a Beggar in Sarajevo

Sarajevo never ceases to reveal jaw-dropping content. My friend and I were walking the other day, and we saw a man begging.

Only, this wasn’t an ordinary beggar. This beggar was an amputee, slightly below his left knee. Despite the temperature being below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, this man had his right pant leg rolled to the mid-thigh, exposing his stump. He was propped upon a set of crutches, and extending a palm in hopes of spare change. All the while – and this is the most important part –  he was wiggling his nude stump and barking demands for money. His stump was a vibrating mass of flesh, greedy for the attention of any wandering eye. Here is a sketch of the scene:

At this point, you might be thinking, “Oh, how awful! The horrors of war!” But wait.

As we walked away from the beggar, my friend and I shook our heads at one another. And then my friend said something both humorous and profound:

Well, I bet he doesn’t do that every day.”

This statement stuck with me because of its simple yet unintuitive truth. When I passed the gut-wrenching beggar, I immediately thought, “look at what life has forced him to become.” I thought about the scene in a detached sense, as a reality to which one is reduced by fate’s unbiased, heavy hand. In reality, the beggar is a regular human making a deliberate choice. He probably spends most of his life either with a prosthetic or with his pant leg unfolded. He probably drinks coffee with friends, smokes cigarettes, and does the millions of other things that average Bosnians do every day.

In other words, he likely only performs his stump drama when he feels especially entitled to extra compensation for his pain. If this were a normal response to trauma, wouldn’t there be more victims of war lining the streets, flaunting and detailing their losses?

Most of the citizens of Sarajevo lived here during the war. Thousands of people sustained wounds, injuries, and amputations. Every day, I see more people limping than I care to count. This beggar specifically pulled his pant leg back to expose his loss, while I cannot truly estimate the amount of people around me concealing prosthetics. The rolled pant leg, along with the forceful stump-wiggling, is clearly a maneuver to garner shock and sympathy. But from whom? Who here hasn’t suffered? Who here would even raise an eyebrow at a missing limb? Into whose nose is the beggar attempting to rub his pain?

If I were Bosnian, I actually think I would be offended.

And this is what causes the beggar to descend into the realm of the absurd. There is a saying, “comedy is tragedy plus time,” but I think it should really be “comedy is tragedy plus ego.” Really, what does it take for a person to abandon all integrity and flap his stunted flesh in every passerby’s face? All of the compassion in the world wouldn’t be enough to mend this beggar’s attitude problem. By wiggling his lack-of-limb, he is essentially proclaiming himself the sole casualty of war, the one Bosnian deserving of special treatment at the hands of everyone else. This is just a laughable delusion.