On compassion

I’ve seen him at the freeway entrance on my way home from work for a couple of weeks. His sign reads “Homeless, hungry, please help.” I carry cash in my car, but the timing has never worked out correctly for me to give him a little something.

It finally—barely—did. I waved him over, before the light changed, and gave him a couple of bucks. He smiled, said “God bless you”, and took the money. Then from the sidewalk he smiled again and again said “Bless you.” I smiled back.

There were maybe twenty cars lined up waiting to get onto the freeway, and I was the only one who reached out to this man and gave him money. I’m not judging them. Humans are a varied lot. And I’m not holding myself out as a paragon of virtue. As with most people, I have faults that t’would be better had my mother not borne me.

But, I’ve lived 46 years on this earth. And I’ve learned a few things. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. I would hope I wouldn’t be.

Many would see my act of charity as contributing to the problem. If you enable them, they won’t get the help they need. You’re just putting a band-aid on the problem. You’re just making things worse.

He could use the money to buy drugs. He could use the money to get drunk. Those are possibilities. I don’t know him.

But I don’t need to know him.

If he chooses to use the money I give him to get high or buy alcohol, I’m not going to be his judge. If I were in his shoes, I would try to forget the pain in which I lived.

Compassion, to be true compassion, must come without strings. Compassion which comes with caveats is not compassion, but judgment. “Oh, I feel for you, but I don’t know what you’ll do with my money.” That’s not compassion, that’s an account ledger.

Compassion is not something which can be willed. You can’t awaken one day and say “I will be compassionate.” It is a product of life. Either you live a life in which you grow your compassion, or you don’t. There is no middle ground.

Compassion is the idea that you give of yourself not because you expect some reward. Do not engage in acts of compassion because you think you will earn good karma, or a heavenly reward. Compassion is the human act that you recognize others as human, as fully human as yourself. That is the reward.

Compassion is the idea that the least of your brothers and sisters are not the least; they are as worthy as you. You treat them as you would treat yourself.

When a new homeless person, or a person in distress, comes into my library, I treat them with the same respect and dignity I treat my regulars, because I know they don’t engender that treatment anywhere else. And this isn’t just because it’s my job. It’s my duty as a decent human being.

You don’t engage in acts of compassion expecting a reward. The act is the reward. The act is an affirmation of your common humanity, and that is the thing which binds the world together.

A compassionate life is a full life. To the degree in which you lack compassion, you are less fully human. You are a slave to the self, to the particular, to the quotidian.

The compassionate life is the reward. The reward isn’t in some afterlife, but in the knowledge that you have helped others, and by doing so enriched yourself, not with worldly things, but with riches of the spirit.

The basic tenet of any spiritual life is to act in loving kindness. The God of the New Testament is the God of Love. Allah in the Quran has as his primary epithets “the Compassionate, the Merciful”. The Buddha taught compassion for all beings. Compassion is the theme music of all belief. Even people without religious belief are informed by this. It is a thing which is wired into human consciousness. There but for the grace of the Universe go I.

Compassion doesn’t require spending thousands of dollars. The greatest act of compassion is merely acknowledging another’s presence, that another exists and is valid, that she is not alone and you recognize her worth. It costs you nothing, but wins you everything.

I don’t help people in expectation of some otherworldly reward. I don’t believe in the otherworldly. I do so because it makes me feel human, and in recognizing their humanity I recognize my own.

Compassion is that which makes the world bearable. Woe to us if it is ever expunged.


5 thoughts on “On compassion”

  1. Beautifully expressed words of compassion for so many homeless men, women, and children in our society. I feed a few stray cats in my neighborhood and give to organizations that help animals. One Sunday on my way to feed the strays this young man walking around with a trash bag of belongings and holding onto clothes that barely fit him. I had bought a sandwich and bottle water, so I gave him the bottled water and sandwich, he was so grateful but I could tell not mentally well. It was in June when we had that horrible heat and you could tell he was hot and hungry just wondering the streets. I am finding in my old age when I see our neighbors living on the street I think, “there but for the grace of God I go”. I call them my neighbors because they live in my neighborhood, in my city, in my state. Many come to SoCal hoping for a new life or to live on the street in milder weather. I talk to many of them and they are just like me, like all of us. Once had a good job, a home, and family. Something tragic happened in their lives, loss of a job, home, etc., I am surprised how so many are young people their ages range from 18yr olds that term out of foster care to 70yrs old. When did this become OK? I am glad that the Mayor of L.A. is helping veterans get into apartments but we need to do as the Mayor of Utah and just get them into apartments, no strings attached, then help them get off drugs or sober, find jobs, later. I wish ALL cities would do this so people would not have to migrate putting the burden on one city. Our city leaders need to travel to Utah and study/copy what they are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. LL this is an excellent piece and I salute you for it……I always keep a few bucks in my sun visor especially for homeless vets around the Chicago area.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful. LL! Thank you for being the compassionate person you are.

    I was in San Francisco last week. I was eating outside by the Ferry Building. There was this man holding up a sign looking for about $2.00 to buy something to eat; I don’t remember the exact amount, but he was specific in what he wanted it for, so I gave him $5.00. I just figured it was the least I could do.


  4. Today I wrote a post on compassion. https://silentlyheardonce.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/compassion-and-love/ Honestly you can’t teach people to be compassionate.
    It is something that grows inside of us. Back when I worked I brought breakfast and the cashier gave me an extra $5 in change. I went back downstairs and gave the guy the $5 back. My co-workers told me I should have kept the 5 because they rob everyone. I told them the guy made a mistake and might not be able to afford to lose $5 from his pay. That wasn’t the first time I gave over payment back to cashiers. Back when I worked as a cashier I lost $10 in a con. That didn’t taint me from doing what is right. I do what’s right because it is the right thing to do.


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