God punishes people like you

Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always gotten.

That maxim has been part of my thinking for as long as I can remember. So has the simple, one-word slogan “Evolve” – applied to as many aspects of my life as I could manage.

It’s a mode of thought that’s brought me quite far. Every so often, I re-evaluate everything I’m doing, to see if there’s anything I could be doing differently. It made me a very engaged employee (for as long as there were new opportunities), it pushed me over the edge into quitting my first (and longest!) job, and it keeps nudging me into trying different things.

When I quit my job, one of my medium-term plans was to get myself set up for mobility. Partially because I fear South Africa has already sunk past the point of no return, partially because I like the idea of travelling around the world slowly, working and experiencing different ways of life.

I know – both from experience and from empirical research – that it’s precisely that sort of perspective-broadening experience-deepening travel that has a major, positive impact on your sense of self. And ultimately that’s where I’d like to end up, having graduated from an office desk/home desk/bed lifestyle, to one where I’m not afraid to dive into new experiences.

And so, through a set of happy coincidences, I landed a few customers that are based in the Cape Town CBD. Every few weeks I plan on spending a few days over there. In-person meetings really are the best kind (as much a fan as I am of telecommuting), and every trip gives me the chance to spread my wings a little more, acclimatizing to a lifestyle that may define the next few years of my life.

The most recent trip was my longest by far – 1.5 weeks, 3 different Airbnbs, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude that these sharing economy systems exist. I can’t imagine finding trustworthy, low-cost accommodation in a foreign city 10 years ago. Today it’s just another app.

This most recent trip is memorable for another reason, captured in the title. While standing outside the entrance for my final Airbnb room, waiting to hear back about how to actually get into the place, a local beggar came up to me.

I generally don’t like beggars. I’m a generous person by default, and happily share what I can with people that genuinely mean well.

It’s the entitled beggars I can’t stand, and Cape Town has among the most shameless beggars around – exemplified by the beggar that came up to me that afternoon.

My usual response over the years has been a half-hearted fakeout – usually something about not having cash on me (near-universally true). This time around though, looking at the situation for what must have been the hundredth time, I had one of those “eh, fuck it” moments.

So when I told him no, and he asked me why, I looked him dead in the eyes and told him it was because I didn’t want to.

If you ever want to see someone go from fake-pleading to outraged in less than a second, step directly on their sense of entitlement with your own intransigence. It works wonders.

He actually looked taken aback for a moment, then got angry, waved a finger in my face and went “You know what, God punishes people like you.” and walked off.

I thought about that one for a while, and concluded that since I’ve dealt with a decent amount of punishment already, there’s not that much worse I can go through – and besides, if He does show up to punish me, there are a bunch of questions I’d love to ask. 

And then I checked into a very stuffy 1-bedroom apartment for two days.

The real winner was the following night, when a young woman and child pulled up next to me at a kiosk and started begging. There, I’ve found the most effective response is “Are you really teaching this child to beg?”, at which point they usually realize the manipulation isn’t going to work, cut their losses, and run.

Those two incidents were, in their own way, perfectly timed. That night I spoke to the manager of a local restaurant, who bemoaned the fact that the drunk, loud vagrants around Cape Town routinely scare away tourists, hurting his business.

I heard the same from an old friend of mine, when I relayed to him the anxiety I felt sitting in Greenmarket Square. I didn’t recognize the city around me, and I had lived in it for years. Somewhere, somehow, some important things have broken and are not being repaired.

In my case, these things just motivate me to keep pushing for the next milestone. By this time next year, I hope to be travelling, and continuing to set myself up for a new life somewhere else.

Ideally somewhere God doesn’t punish people like me.