The entire goal of the spiritual life is compassion – as Meister Eckhart emphasised, “if you were in an ecstasy as deep as that of St. Paul and there was a sick man who needed a cup of soup, it were better for you that you returned from the ecstasy and brought the cup of soup for love’s sake.”
I fail this test frequently. And not because I am in ‘an ecstasy’ too great to tear myself away from and serve my fellow human beings…no, nothing as wonderfully spiritual-sounding as that… Most often it’s because I am too busy, ‘not in the mood’, distracted, irritated or self-absorbed…
Compassion takes time, energy and the willingness to become involved in something that might snowball into something much bigger than you at first anticipated. Sometimes I just don’t feel I have the energy to ‘go there’ with a particular person or situation I am confronted with, usually at an inopportune moment (like when you are on your way to work, or already late for an appointment…)
Is it even ‘reasonable’ to expect that anyone would always react with compassion, patience and self-sacrifice though? Aren’t we all ‘entitled’ to have ‘off’ days, or to avoid certain situations because they just aren’t ‘our thing’? I often ask myself this, when I am judging others for not seeming responsive enough… as well as when I am feeling guilty myself for turning away from someone clearly in need and right in front of me…
As I write this, I am still feeling very bad about turning a young man away from our house, who approached me as I was getting out of the car, and asked if he could wash the car in exchange for food. To my shame, I responded dismissively that our car was already clean and sent him on his way – because I was totally absorbed by my own concerns (I am 9 months pregnant and had some alarming symptoms that had sent us scurrying to the hospital, to check our baby’s heartbeat and ensure she is okay – we were just returning from there).
Many times in the past, a similar situation would have caused my heart to melt, and I would have found a way to make this a dignified transaction, to enable me to give him food, a shopping bag or two full, and send him on his way with smiles and blessings. A bit of gardening, or something for him to do… In a previous neighbourhood we had actually gone from an encounter like this, to babysitting the man’s grandchild, and frequently giving him lifts to the other side of Cape Town afterwards - always with bags of food (and money for the work he did in our garden – work we usually do ourselves as I don’t believe in having ‘servants’). But not this time. This time I was hard-hearted and dismissive.
By the time we were inside our house, I was already feeling ashamed of myself - he wasn’t even asking for money, which I don’t like to give to people as it may support a drug or alcohol habit… He wasn’t even asking for something for nothing- he wanted to work for it… He was so young, maybe 17, and I had just added to the bruises on his young soul that poverty and discrimination have no doubt already left there… I thought of how much food we have in our house, and how easy it would have been to give him some… I realised again how blessed we really are in comparison with most people living in this city…
Sure, my concerns are real and valid too, but in the context of so much love, so many blessings, and so many resources at our disposal to deal with our problems (like access to private medical care when we needed it that morning, and a car to drive there!)… Not to mention my spiritual, social, intellectual and emotional resources – when I don’t know what to do, I can pray, call friends or family, research possible causes and solutions on the internet, or at times just lean on my lovely man for comfort and support… While many people trapped in poverty, and usually with deeply dysfunctional, ‘broken’ families and communities, have none of these avenues of assistance or support open to them.
How could I just turn away from him like that, without even pausing to think of the options available to me to help him? As I already explained, I was self-absorbed, concerned about our baby girl, and her imminent arrival in our world - hopefully in an untraumatic manner… But there was more to it than that: I also felt impatient with being ‘accosted’ as I was getting out of the car in our usually quiet little cul-de-sac – like, “oh just leave me alone, what are you doing here anyway, you shouldn’t be here… probably looking for a chance to break in or steal something like all the usual druggies down the road in the park…”
This was my jaded self talking – the one that has been living in this country again perhaps just a tad too long now, with calluses growing over my heart in places – probably in a futile attempt at self-preservation… There is just so much suffering here, right in your face, all the time… And you don’t often know what to do to help, or feel like you can even make a dent in the problems… I am not sure if you can go on indefinitely, being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too idealistic’ (as I am often accused of being) and not crack up because you can’t help or ‘solve’ it all… I think most people eventually just start turning a blind eye so that we can carry on with our daily lives without cracking up all the time….
But I don’t want to be hard-hearted. The irony is that I have often, in sheer frustration at not knowing where to begin, asked God to “send people across my path that need help” so that I can at least do small things along the way to share the resources I have been blessed with – financial and/or spiritual… And yet there he was, this young man, obviously in need…and I sent him away with nothing. You might think I am really carrying on too much about this, but I don’t think I will forget my callousness in that moment (and many others) for the rest of my life. One of the many moments in my life I will always wish I could have over, to redo, and do it with compassion this time.
I will try to use these regrets as a learning experience though, rather than staying in a place of shame and guilt (at being such an obvious part of ‘the problem’ rather than ‘the solution’) – which is disempowering, soul-destroying and counter-productive. I would rather see these moments as reminders of my own fickle, self-absorbed humanity, so that I will not be so quick to judge others and rail at them for their failure to ‘do something’ – to care, to share, to respond… I do spend a lot of time thinking “why don’t they do/see/think/care…???” When I should include myself in the analysis, asking “why don’t I… ???” It’s a sobering, humbling, challenging question.
The next question is something like, “how can we freely (but gently) acknowledge our own lack of compassion, empathy or love; accept that many others are stuck in the same sort of inertia – also often brought about by feelings of helplessness in the face of the huge issues to be addressed; and still press on – humbly, bravely, even if inconsistently, to try and do some good, together…?” Perhaps pretending to be more loving and patient than most of us really feel at times, is part of the problem.
I am not saying it’s okay not to care, or it’s fine to do nothing, because we are all ‘just human’. No. I hope you are not reading that. It’s about being honest enough about who we all are, and this hopefully freeing us, to be and do more than we could if we were still sitting around feeling bad for not being Mother Theresa. I don’t think we will get far if we think it’s all up to us, or that we should be a certain way, always respond in certain ways… Every person that crosses my path is not my responsibility to help, or ’fix’ - but I have a hard time letting go of the idea that maybe they are…and I will never be able to live up to that unrealistic (self-imposed) mandate!
So perhaps I need to let go of ‘the one that got away’ and instead focus on being more open, attentive and responsive for the next one that crosses my path.
OR maybe I really did mess up big time and no one else helped the poor guy either, and I am just trying to self-justify here… What do you think?
I would really like to read some other people’s opinions and perspectives on this… both from within
, and from other countries, where there are of course also inequalities and social injustices - although the dynamics may be very different... South Africa