We Can Only Do So Much

Today, I am in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I am here to attend the Global Addiction conference, to present on some of the reasons why addicts around the world are denied access to care and to give a call to action that researchers do what we can to change that. It has been an exciting conference with the sharing of good ideas and a heated, yet respectful exchange of opinions. Still, I was given a stark reminder that we can only do so much to help those in need.


Yesterday, I went to Ipanema to visit the “Hippie Market.” It’s a beautiful market in a square just off the beach in Ipanema, where artisans and artists sell their wares. I love folk art, so I was very much at home. In the center of the square are the painters, probably fifty or sixty, selling their work. The center around the fountain is an explosion of color, with scenes of the crowded city, Christ the Redeemer, dancers, and others gracing the walkways. The colors were made more intense yesterday by the overcast sky and coming darkness.


In this vibrant scene, I found pain. Along one path was an older man selling colorful scenes of guitar players and children on the soccer field. His work was lively and inviting. He motioned me over, which I obliged. Though I had just gotten off the plane and wanted a nap, I had gone to the market because it is only open on Sunday and this was my only Sunday in town. In other words, I wasn’t in the market for a painting, I had just gotten to town, but I was certainly willing to chat.


Upon getting closer, I realized that the man was almost completely deaf. I couldn’t tell if he was deaf from birth. On the one hand, he barely spoke above a whisper and I could not make out one word of what he mumbled. On the other hand, he did not try to sign to me, as two other deaf merchants later did. In any case, I spent some time with him, letting him show me his paintings and indicating to him that I appreciated his work.


But he did not need my appreciation. He needed my money. It was clear as he pitched his paintings, pitched them harder than any other merchant I would meet that day, he needed a sale. The trouble was that these are paintings – and paintings of this size and type in the market go from $100 – $250 or so. I had only brought about a hundred bucks, to buy beads or baubles as children’s gifts. I probably could have talked him down, but a) I didn’t need a painting and b) I don’t like to haggle like that with artists. I don’t haggle on the price of my books and so I don’t expect others to haggle on the price of their work.


After a short time, I walked away to enjoy the rest of the market. Later though, just before I left, I caught a glimpse of the man, sitting forlorn behind his stall his head in his hands. He needed a sale and he likely wasn’t going to get one.


I have felt uneasy about this all night and into this morning. I honored the man too much to give him money without making a purchase. He wasn’t begging and I wasn’t going to insult him. At the same time, I’m here on a budget and I can’t throw down money every time I see someone in need. My uncle reminded me that there is only so much we can do and sometimes we cannot do anything at all. I don’t like any of these realities. The image of this forlorn artist will stay with me for a long time. But there are no do-overs. When the Hippie Market opens again for business, I will be home and he will once again try to sell his paintings.