In Troubled Times: The Challenge of Compassion

Nov. 10, 2009

“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 did occur 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 wonder 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 common humanity in people who are screaming hatred at you — that’s hard.


The drawing is by Isidre Nonell (1872–1911)



In Troubled Times: The Challenge of Compassion — 4 Comments

  1. I have taken to carrying singles in my pocket and giving them to people who ask, or to those who I know are in need. I usually share some conversation as well. I also talk to the people who collect cans and bottles to sell to the recycling companies (though they rarely ask for any cash). It’s become part of my routine. It never feels like enough, but kindness helps.

    I saw a story online recently about a woman who was approached by a group of people who wanted to pray for her because they thought she was “broken”. (I gathered she was trans.) Since she knew fundamentalist Christianity better than they do, she agreed to pray and pulled out her own Bible quotes and prayers to upend what they were doing. I found this a brilliant strategy. However, the people who accosted her were not as abusive as the ones of which you speak. I don’t know how to deal with them, either.

    • Well there is that one line about taking the log out of one’s own eye before complaining about the speck in another’s, but somehow I doubt those kinds of people (“broken” in their own way) are able to see themselves in it. Speaking very quietly to them so that they have to stop shouting in order to hear, or even just standing in silence and staring them in the eye might be enough to unsettle them, but ultimately it wouldn’t make much difference.

      I have an associate who is adamant about not giving money to people begging on account of a story circulating a number of years ago about a woman who purportedly spent her days panhandling and then got in her expensive car and went home to her big house—because begging on the street is such a lucrative gig, dontchaknow. There’s this mistaken idea that begging is taking the easy way out in life, instead of “working hard like the rest of us.” But how many of us could actually face up to the degradation and disparagement day in and day out, just for a few coins in a cup? It truly is the activity of last resort. I will always give, if I can (I don’t carry cash much with me anymore), because life has taught me that just about anyone can end up in that situation given the right circumstances. There but for the grace…

      It’s all about allowing people to maintain even just that little bit of dignity.

  2. I ask myself this question every day, and I don’t have an answer. I have friends who insist that “we” (liberals) need to listen to and empathize with “them” (Trump supporters). But I can’t even, and I’m not sure I want to. “Build bridges, not walls” sounds great, until you really think about who might be on the other side of the bridge. Ironically, I’m sure “they” feel the same way about “us,” and even moreso about the people they’re afraid of — immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, and other people of color. When I think about “them,” I’m filled with reflexive contempt and loathing for their greed and cowardice. How can you think about bridging a divide when what you perceive on the other side of it is evil?