Unexpected moments of truth

To anyone who would claim that human beings are basically good, I have this to say:

Toilet paper.

Apparently I can leave my home and family to move across the world and work for free under extreme conditions in order to promote the rights of poor people with disabilities – but faced with housemates who fail to honour their toilet-paper buying obligations, I lose it completely.

Of course, it’s not just the toilet paper. It’s also the unwashed dishes, the blithe ignorance of how to refill the water filter, the monopolising of the good Tupperware and the… oh dear. That’s mostly it. Granted, it has been a tough week – managing students at a new placement, early starts and long rides across the city in unfriendly traffic, and multiple scooter break-downs. Also, said housemates happened to pick up diarrhoea via an injudicious roadside brochette on Sunday evening, making the toilet paper situation even more unfortunate.

All I had to do was stop on my way home and buy more of the stuff. It’s not exactly going to break the bank, and apart from being a kindness to the suffering Frenchies, it would relieve my own annoyance. Goodness knows I can’t afford any extra of that. But it was the hardest thing in the world to be gracious in this one small thing, to people who are not especially considerate of my needs. And knowing how ridiculously petty it was made it so much worse.

If goodness was bell-curved in the human population, I reckon I’d sit somewhere around the middle, quite comfortably. I try to be kind and thoughtful. I have a job that officially helps people. I refuse straws and plastic stirrer sticks in restaurants, and tip car guards and petrol attendants religiously.

But what kind of person considers withholding toilet paper from someone with gyppo-guts, for the sake of principle? Don’t tell me that’s a decent standard for 50th-percentile goodness.

No my friends, we can try so hard, but in the daily small irritations, the apparently insignificant moments that catch us off-guard – we can be breathtakingly small and selfish. At least I can. I don’t know if Gandhi or Madiba had anything to say about toilet-paper buying (there’s an interesting Google search for when I have internet access again), but Jesus was quite clear about being much, much kinder to each other than we deserve, and about these very small things being not small at all.

It’s humbling, which can only be a good thing. It makes me think how much grace* we need – for ourselves and for other people – and all the time. It makes me so grateful that I will not be judged and consigned to one or other portion of eternity based on my own merits. Unless I sit far lower on the human-goodness-bell-curve than I thought, don’t tell me humanity has “evolved morally” beyond needing divine assistance for basic decency.

Anyway, in the end I decided, very grudgingly, to stop at the supermarket on the way home on Monday evening, but then the scooter broke down. And the same thing happened on Tuesday. Being stuck unwillingly with my original inclination not to help my sick housemates certainly served me right (and no, I don’t believe the mechanical failures were bad karma – at least if they were, the toilet paper incident would have to get in line). Fortunately Anri (who is also a housemate but has her own bathroom and therefore separate supply) is much more gracious than I am, and resolved the problem with a 12-roll pack from Shoprite on Tuesday evening.

Hopefully, after the personal (and now quite public) humiliation of this particular character test, I will concentrate better when the “small” daily irritations arise, recognising that they are perhaps not quite so small after all.

But I can’t promise anything about the Tupperware…


*Grace: what fills the gaps between what we should be and what we are. Not a theological or OED definition, obviously




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