Empathic compassion

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His rheumy eyes seemed on the verge of imminent discharge—without spark, listless, lacking in spirit—within ill fitting, almost hollow cavities in a tight, hard living face. He stood before me in the partially lit hallway, unkempt, unclean—unloved.  

Oh brother, I sighed to myself. What’s he on? I wondered. Probably coming down from speed or coke, I concluded. He seemed embarrassed yet unrepentant, self-conscious but unashamed, needy yet proud.

I knew the script: find a church, play on someone’s guilt, use them. What’s this guy want?  

Suddenly, some “why” questions invaded my consciousness. Why was I so suspicious? Why did I know for certain he wanted to use me? Why did I believe all he really wanted was money to buy more booze or drugs? I forced the hard questions back into my ungracious unconscious. I quickly moved away from unpleasant thoughts about me and refocused on “the problem.” I’ve got this guy pegged.

His complexion, his eyes, his body language shouted “addict.” His clothes said “homeless.” His quiet words whispered “hungry.”

Where’s the Salvation Army officer? Not around. Where’s the social worker? Not around. It was Sunday afternoon, my family was waiting. Church had ended and we were making plans. Yes, church, where they talked about loving neighbors.

I looked over at the guy—still just a guy, not a person—wondering how much money I had in my wallet, planning how I might ease out of this one.

How can I brush this guy off with guiltless dignity?

I wanted to escape and still spare my conscience. He stood in the way.

My conscience!

Suddenly, it hit me. Awareness erupted. The guilt hit. It was hard to breathe. I think my heart was bleeding. I had diminished another human being.

Which of us has the greater poverty?

I felt a burst of contempt for myself and remorse for him. I suspected he had multiple needs most of which were material, but in reality, I didn’t even know. My need was spiritual. What right did I have to stand in judgment of him, to label him without any information? What right did I have to minimize his humanness and perceive him only as a problem instead of a person?  

I tried to smile and asked: “How can I help you?”

He looked at me squarely and breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m trying to get to my daughter’s house in Fresno and I ran out of money, and I’m almost out of gas,” he said. “I just pulled off the freeway and saw your sign. I knew that if I could just get to The Salvation Army, someone would help me. Mostly, I need just a little food to take with this medicine. Just a cracker or piece of bread. I’m really sorry to bother you.”

I found the food and water. I invited him to lunch. I gave him money for a tank of gas.

But it took me awhile to start feeling good about myself again.

Anything like this ever happen to you?

Compassion makes up the behavioral action to the stimulation of empathy.

Don’t let your empathy stay buried.

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