The challenge of compassion

“All real living is meeting.” — Martin Buber

At World Fantasy Convention, three friends and I ventured forth from the hotel in search of un-conditioned air and reasonably-priced food. Our path took us into a pedestrian mall with a lively street scene. Two encounters stand out in my mind. The first was with a homeless man. As he asked us for money, his voice was low and dispirited, as if he had no expectation of a response. He seemed on the edge of giving up hope.

Usually, I feel uncomfortable giving cash, although if I have the time, I may offer to buy the person a meal. I didn’t have the time, but something in this man spoke to me. Without questioning that inner prompting, I turned back, dug in my purse for a dollar, and offered it to him. It seemed to me that a kind word and the recognition of our common humanity was as important as that small amount of money.

As I spoke to him and met his eyes, I saw them fill with tears. In broken tones, he told me of how he had lost his job and left his home, rather than be evicted. I don’t know if he was telling the truth or if he later used the money to buy drugs or booze. I’m not sure it matters. The moment between us, his response to being treated with kindness, was real. For all I know, it might have been the tiny nudge that kept hope alive.

Further up the street, a group of young adults in uniform-like black sweats was holding forth in loud voices, lecturing all within earshot, preaching their religious beliefs. Their voices echoed against the buildings and their eyes were hard and angry.

As we passed, I tried to imagine what I might say to them — “Live and let live”? A few people on the street shouted back at them. My friends and I thought of all sorts of snappy retorts, none of which would have amounted to any real communication. I realized this was a way of diffusing the discomfort caused by the abrasive behavior of these young people.

How can speech that is combative to the point of hostility be answered? It seemed to me impossible to have even a token conversation with someone who is browbeating me at the top of his lungs. Isn’t it necessary for both parties to be willing to take turns, to listen to one another?

It occurred to me that these young people, berating all within earshot for their sinful ways, were not at all interested in hearing anyone else’s point of view. I wondered what would have satisfied them.

Afterwards, I was struck by the contrast in the two encounters. Certainly, the evangelists were more intent on pounding home the evils of this world and terror of the next than in giving to the poor.

But there is this: reaching out to the homeless man was easy. His manner was gentle and humble. He spoke out of need and then gratitude. The angry young people, on the other hand, presented a much greater challenge, one I was not equal to. I still do not know how I might be present with them without getting drawn in to acrimony and name-hurling.

Charity is easy. Seeing the divine light in people who are screaming at you — that’s hard.

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The challenge of compassion — 5 Comments

  1. It seems to me that what is important is the reciprocity. If both parties are not willing to see each other as human — to listen as well as speak — it is impossible to communicate. The street evangelists were exceptionally foolish. Repelling your customer is bad marketing.

  2. Sometimes it’s not possible to expression compassion through speech or action, but we can still work on it in our hearts. People who are angry and bigoted are suffering, and we can always develop compassion for suffering once we really see it. But yes, seeing the divine light in people who are behaving so unskilfully is a real challenge:-)

  3. I’m intrigued by the challenge of your examples. Having the luxury to consider my response to the second one outside the emotional cloud of their hostility, I’ve thought of an experiment I might have tried, had I the luxury of the time to do it. What would have happened if I had sat near them, given them my full attention, and just listened? What would have happened if they thought they were being truly heard? I don’t know, but it would have been interesting to see if that could create a change in the dynamic for the better.

  4. I don’t mind listening, but I won’t sit and be yelled at. Remember, as the customer, I am king. It is your job as the salesman-evangelist to make the pitch attractive to me. To actively make it repellent is utterly idiotic; running a business that way will lead to bankruptcy and running a religion that way leads to nutcase-cult status. And that means that an actively-repellent salesman-evangelist has something else going on — a sicko power play, or mental illness. (Anybody heard of Westboro ‘Baptist’ Church?)