He Is Worthy of Compassion

A friend and I were walking home after shopping, two days before Christmas. It was already dark, and though I was wrapped in a thick coat and scarf, the cold hit my face. It would freeze again soon.

The street was crowded with shoppers, talking, walking, or waiting for buses. A few people walked past arm in arm, on their way home after office parties. Around us, light from cars, buses, shop windows and glittering strings of Christmas lights shimmered into the darkness.

Hidden among the gaudiness was another kind of darkness, one that bright lights can’t disperse or disguise. This darkness was pressed against a wall, a mound of torn coat and worn gloves, and instead of the sleeping bag most of the homeless use, he had a black plastic rubbish bag.

beggar3

I stooped to drop coins into his paper cup.

“No, “ he said, holding out his hand.

Our eyes met. “You don’t want it in your cup?”

“People will steal it.”

“People steal from you?” I said, trying to comprehend why anyone would do that to a homeless man.

“It happened already today,” he said.

I put the coins into his hand. He was young, possibly not much older than my daughters.

“Where will you sleep tonight?”

“In a doorway on the Royal Mile.”

“That must be hard.”

“Yes. My eyes are so sore.”

I wasn’t sure if he meant his eyes were sore because he was tired, or because he had an infection. Part of me wanted to scoop him up and take him home with us. But I couldn’t; that sort of thing might happen in movies, but it’s not most people’s reality. Instead I asked, “Do you know that the church over there is open for people tonight?”

“It’s full,” he said, his eyes cast down.

I thought this was unlikely, but confronted with his feelings of hopelessness, I didn’t know what to say. Behind him, up against the wall, was an open beer can. He wasn’t drinking when we came, and he seemed sober, but I began to wonder if that was why he didn’t want to try the church. Words came out of my mouth that, even as they did, I regretted. I can’t even remember exactly what I said, but it was something about getting something warm inside him, instead of just the beer.

And then, we walked away.

Thoughts tumbled through my mind. What a stupid, patronising thing to say. When will you ever learn? How is he even going to get some warm food? What restaurant would want him with his grimy coat and his plastic bag? You stupid idiot.

A few years ago, I would have berated myself the rest of the way home. But I’ve learned that does no good, doesn’t make me go back and help. I’ve learned that self-compassion is more useful. I was more interested in helping this man than I was in trying to make myself into some perfect being. So I stopped berating myself and said to my friend, “If I think he should have something warm, I should get it for him.”

If I think someone should do it, then let someone be me.

It was around five o’ clock, that time of day when cafés were closing and restaurants hadn’t opened. At first I could see nowhere to go, and then I noticed a small café across the road, its lights still on.

Inside, I asked for soup to take away, and was prepared for sandwiches instead. But the cafe owner took a large plastic container from the fridge, and heated tomato soup in a microwave. He disappeared to the far end of the counter and came back with a white paper bag, which he gave me along with the soup. Inside the bag was an enormous chunk of bread.

I hadn’t told him the soup was for a homeless man, but for a moment it seemed as if he knew, and the chunk of bread seemed like the most generous thing imaginable.

We went back out into the cold and dark and across the road. The young man’s head was bent over, his hands clutched to his chest. He was counting his money. He didn’t notice us at first.

“I got some soup for you,” I said, holding out the cup and bag.

He looked up, and his eyes lit up. “Thank you.” He dropped his money back into his glove.

But it wasn’t his words that made me feel his gratitude. It wasn’t his words that had the deepest impact. The instant the food was in his hands, he forgot me, and became engrossed in opening the bag. Somehow, that was how I knew how truly grateful he was. And I felt so grateful that I had stopped my litany of self-recriminations and done something, however small, to make his life a little more bearable.

I feel immensely grateful to that young man. In our short encounter, he taught me so much.

He taught me to value him as an equal. In the moment when I thought I was qualified to give him advice, he didn’t challenge me. Perhaps if he had, I would not have listened to my own inner voice, the voice that told me to really try to put myself in his place and think about what it must be like to be him. His humility taught me humility.

He taught me a lesson in self-worth. One day a few weeks later, when I was feeling annoyed with myself for having wasted time and not finished off some jobs, I remembered him. I saw him as valuable, worthy of compassion, even though he wasn’t doing anything that most people would consider of value. In this, he taught me that we are worthy of compassion just because. I knew nothing of the circumstances that led him to sit begging on the street on a cold December evening, but my instinct was to show him kindness. He was worth it.

We are worthy of compassion just because.

He has value, just because he is a living being. That is enough. So why, sometimes, do I think that I am not enough, just as I am? Why sometimes, do I still try to punish myself into changing, even though all it ever achieves is feelings of worthlessness?

beggar2

In the city where I live, some churches open their halls to the homeless during the winter nights. Right down at the bottom of our society’s pile, he had given up hope, and assumed they were full. I could only guess at why he thought that, but a few weeks later, another homeless man told me he avoided the church because the “alkis” went there. He chose to sleep in a graveyard if he didn’t have money for a hostel. I’ve never been to the churches, so although what these guys said didn’t fit with what I’ve read about them, it didn’t seem respectful to argue.

Over the last few months, partly from this young man, partly from other encounters with the homeless, I’ve learned too, that compassionate action isn’t necessarily what I used to think it should be.

Compassion LogoIn the weeks since we set up 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion, several people have written about guilt at passing beggars or about not doing enough for someone. But in feeling compassion, our job isn’t to prove to ourselves we’ve done the right thing, but to do what feels right and then let go. We are imperfect, perhaps we could do more – or perhaps what we do is exactly what someone needs. Many years ago, a friend confessed their addiction to hard drugs. I felt shocked, had no idea how to help, and just cried. We lost contact, and then, decades on, I received a message from this person to say that was exactly what they needed. It let them know that someone cared.

I used to be racked with guilt every time I passed a beggar. Even if I gave them money, it seemed too little. I would sometimes give a few coins to several, sometimes give it all to the first person I passed and nothing to the others. Or I’d make decisions based on who I thought deserved it most: “He’s smoking so he can’t really need my money, he’s got a drinks can; she has a dog, so if she can afford it she must be doing okay.”

And sometimes, in my shame and pain at not being able to solve their problems, I chose to look to look away. I have crossed streets rather than look into the eyes of beggars. Because I wanted to help them and didn’t know how. Because I felt overwhelmed by the enormity, the impossibility of it.

And because, in some cases, I felt afraid of them.

I believed the myths that most beggars are addicts or alcoholics. I thought it was wrong to give them money that would feed an addiction. Some acquaintances of ours who worked for homeless charities said the best thing to do was give money to the charities instead. So I did. I bought food vouchers from a local soup kitchen and gave them out. I spoke to Big Issue sellers because I knew they weren’t allowed to be drunk on duty. I tried to ease my guilt by giving them extra money; until one day, a vendor said they were no longer allowed to accept donations. The guilt remained.

There is a definition of compassion that appears often on the internet. This version, from the Collins dictionary, contains the gist: a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it

I prefer this definition, found in Free Dictionary: Deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to relieve it.

In the second definition there is awareness of the suffering of another, but not distress. Notice too that in the first definition the desire to alleviate suffering is only “often” present. I do not believe it is necessary to feel distress to feel compassion. I’d even go so far as to say that feeling distress can stop us taking compassionate action. I am an example of this. When I felt distressed about beggars, I barely took action and what I did left me feeling more distressed.

Then something changed in me. I had had enough of worrying about what was the right thing to do, and of feeling guilty whatever I did.

Instead of listening to yet more advice on what I should do, I started listening to the beggars themselves. I asked them to tell me their stories. One told me he had lost his home because a relationship broke up, another had been in prison for stealing. He came out determined never to do that again, and with no job prospects, he’d turned to begging. He had grown up in foster homes, and had nobody. Another was seventeen years old, his mother had died and he’d lost his home. Every story is different, and yet their stories all have a similar feel – a sense of hopelessness, of being stuck, and a sense of aloneness.

I can’t give them hope, only they can do that for themselves, but perhaps by listening to their stories I am giving them as much as when I give them money. Perhaps more.

Compassion doesn’t need to hurt. My actions may be small, but each time I take action, it strengthens me to take more action.

My actions may be small, but each time I take action, it strengthens me to take more action.

This post is part for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, a massive link-up, when over 1000 bloggers are writing for compassion. So many of us want to take action but feel small and powerless, and by coming together, we grow in strength and ability to create positive change. To read more posts, or to add your own, click on the blue button below. To accommodate all time zones, he link-up is open from 12 noon GMT 19th February – 12 noon GMT 21st February.

Besides me, your hosts are:

American Indian Mom, Finding Ninee The Quiet Muse, Chronically Sick Manic Mother, Just Gene’o, Driftwood Gardens, Getting Literal, The Meaning of Me, Ilirian Ravings, Head Heart Health, Considerings, Paper,Pen,Pad

1000 Voices Speak For Compassion is a blogging initiative started in response to violence and alienation in our world. The original plan was to gather 1000 bloggers to write about compassion on 20th February 2015. However, we now plan to keep going, and flood the internet with compassion many more times. If you would to be part of a movement for loving change, join our Facebook Group,  like our Facebook Page, or look for our posts on Twitter with the hashtag #1000Speak.

Comments

  1. Pingback: 1000 Voices for Compassion #kindnesswins : These Little Waves

  2. Breathtakingly beautiful post, Yvonne!! I too often feel the helplessness of driving by homeless people and wondering what to do! I’ll always remember your lovely gesture and try to do the same from now on!

    1. Author

      Thank you Roshni. It is sometimes hard to know what to do, and I think each situation is different, because each person is different.

  3. Hugs hugs hugs, Yvonne! Your post had me crying. I try my best to help the street dwellers around my area but it is so heart-breaking to see them struggle. Bless you!

    1. Author

      Vidya, I feel sure you have a very kind heart, and that those you help feel grateful. Thank you for your comment.

  4. And she kicks it off! So excited about this, and this first post did not disappointment. We think about using our eyes and hands compassionately, but what about our ears? Listening I a powerful.

    1. Author

      Sarah, I am growing more and more to see that often I need to listen more and speak less. I need a lot of reminding though! You are right that it is powerful. I’m also just realising as I type, that it’s when I listen that I feel most satisfied with any conversation, rather than when I do all the talking. Thank you for bringing that to my attention with your comment!

  5. As usual you articulate beautifully what I want to think but find logic and emotion scrambled at the wrong times. But as you have discovered talking and mostly listening helps and not feeling guilty, or at least managing those guilty feelings to a positive action next time is what counts. Was it Mother Teresa who said if you can’t help everybody help one person. The beat of the butterfly’s wings, which is what your fabulous idea is, may yet take hold.

    1. Author

      Geoff, those words of Mother Teresa’s run through my head several times a week, if not every day. Sometimes I want to save every homeless person, every lonely person, every mentally ill person, every addict, and so it’s useful to remember that every little thing could have an effect.
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. I love the distinction between the two definitions that you highlight here, Yvonne. So small, but a powerful difference in meaning. Guilt and fear can drive us to inaction but you’ve shown here how facing those feelings can bolster us just a bit and help us do even one small thing.

    1. Author

      Lisa, I was intrigued to discover that compassion has different meanings for different people and like you say, the distinction is small, but meaningful. Facing feelings can be challenging for sure, but is so rewarding when we do.
      Thanks for your comment and for all your support.

  7. It must have surely been such a fulfilling gesture! Most of us are so paranoid of situations we imagine in our heads that we do not surpass those fears, as you rightly put here, and reach out to those in need. We need more people like you around <3

    1. Author

      Vinodini, you are correct – it is situations in our heads we fear most of the time, not what is actually happening. When we get past those imaginings then it’s rarely so bad.
      Thanks for your comment and for joining in!

  8. Pingback: Empathy Works Both Ways. Actually, It Works ALL the Ways. - Mommy, For Real

  9. “Compassion doesn’t need to hurt.” I love that. I love your story, and the action you chose to take. I work in my county’s social services office and I see a lot of things that are horrendous and heartbreaking. It can truly be overwhelming and discouraging. Doing what we can, helping in any small way whether with a meal or simply a smile is the right thing. I am so glad to have “met” you and become involved in this project of yours – it’s truly been an honor.

    1. Author

      Jen, I am so glad to have met you too. Already I am sure you are lovely! It’s sad to say that I’m not surprised that working in social services means you see many heartbreaking things. I agree with you that dong what we can is what matters, even if it seems small, and I hope that being in 1000 Voices Speak can help us all feel a bit more encouraged and able to take those small actions.

  10. I believe it says somewhere in the Bible, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. That is AS ourselves not more than ourselves. If we can’t love ourselves aren’t we drawing from a dry well?

    1. Author

      Faith, that is such an important point. It does start with loving ourselves, and I like your well analogy. Thanks for joining in 1000 Voices Speak.

  11. Your post reassures me of my actions that I write as part of my story for the #1000Speak initiative. The dilemma of whether to help or not is always humungous. Like you said, it is best to just help in that moment and let go. I also agree with you that we often judge people by the beer can next to them, the fact they have been smoking or have a dog, but I have observed that there a few times when the heart gives you a nudge and you just got to listen to it then.

    1. Author

      Chatoveracuppa, thanks for that – I agree what the heart gives us the nudge it is time to listen! And yes, help and let go.
      Thanks for joining us!

  12. One of my first posts I did on compassion was that there is action needed per the definition. That it isn’t enough to just “feel” something you must also act on that. Which is exactly why I adore this movement you & Lizzi started. I am so please to be a part of the action

  13. You have an amazing gift as a story teller. Your words string together in a way that pulls the reader right into your mind. AMAZING! I feel so blessed to be a part of this movement and have met so many amazing writers in the group. I love your piece. I think we ALL have been in your shoes, but we haven’t all went back the way you did. I am looking forward to reading more things on your blog. Glad I stumbled upon this whole movement. <3

    1. Author

      Thank you for your kind comment and for being part of 1000 Voices Speak. I love that you feel blessed, and that is such a good way of describing how I feel to have set this in motion! Thank you.

  14. Pingback: 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion: What is Compassion | willowdot21

  15. This is a wondeful blog and you made me cry ! Everything you said is so true . I am so grateful that you are doing this it is a wonderful idea to poke peoples minds! I heard of this from Geoff and started preparing on the 2Fed . I am glad now that I did. Bless you ! xxx

    1. Author

      Aw Willow, sorry it made you cry. Good for Geoff telling you about this, and thank you for joining in. Thank you!

  16. This is beautiful. Your post, your heart, this movement. Everything. Thank you. I’m so grateful to have connected with you–and via compassion of all things!

  17. Love the placements of you’re quotes. I tweeted all of them. I keep looking to see if we are trending yet 😉 This was a beautiful post and I think we all beat ourselves up about what we should and shouldn’t have done. I am so glad you went back. And how you described knowing that he was grateful had me right there in the scene with you. Beautiful post Yvonne. So glad to be sharing the #1000Speaks movement with you and so many others. We are building a platform of compassion one post at a time.

  18. Pingback: Unleash a passion #1000Speak

  19. Yvonne, thank you once again for getting 1000 Speak going. I’ve been so excited about it, especially in the aftermath of the Lindt Cafe Siege which took place here in Sydney and was then followed up by the horrific events in Paris. This movement seems to rise out of those ashes like a rainbow after a storm providing me with hope and an alternate focus to violence and fear.
    I’ve written quite a few posts about compassion while building up to the “big day” and in the end was concerned I might end up with paralysis through analysis surely I wouldn’t forget or somehow not be ready in time? I even signed up with Twitter and am slowly learning how to tweet.
    My addresses my compassion fatigue as I strained to finalise my topic: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/compassion-fatigue-a-light-bulb-moment/
    When it comes to helping others, I think it is better to err on the side of helping too much than doing nothing. Too many people slip through the cracks.
    xx Rowena

  20. Pingback: Compassion# My Spiritual Wallet | Ruchi2312's Blog

  21. My husband and I went to Chicago last summer. We left town very early on a Sunday morning, after sunrise, but before the area of the town where we were was fully awake. The only people around were cafe owners, a few tourists, and the homeless. There was a guy with a cup, a man rolling a sleeping bag, and a man who’d turned five gallon buckets into drums. That was kind of his thing – we’d seen him playing every day that we’d walked past, and every time, I was struck by his determination to go on living, to make his life as normal as possible. What could be more normal than music? We saw a homeless family one day, living actually between buildings in a construction zone. The kids were playing tag. Trying to recapture normalcy. I grew up rural. I’ve only ever lived in the suburbs of small cities. The homeless here are all but invisible, seen only when they make a good news piece. In Chicago, they were real, human, and alive. And, in spite of everything about their poverty, they were normal.

  22. Pingback: #1000Speak: My True Stories Of Compassion And How 1,000 Bloggers Will Change The World - An Empowered Spirit

  23. Pingback: Why compassion can be a hard choice #1000speak | Honest Mom

  24. “If you think someone should do it, then let that someone be me.” Absolutely love that, Yvonne! Your post is every bit of spectacular that I knew it would be! Your “voice” is truly an inspiration and the sharing of your heart has greatly encouraged me to be more of a “someone.” Thank you for sharing this post with us … and a super HUGE thank you for ALL you’ve done regarding #1000Speak to get us started, to keep us going and in unison, and for carrying us into this extra special day today! 1000+ thanks! 🙂

  25. Yvonne, I am so so honored to be a part of this amazing movement you’ve created and love love love your story. Oh friend. Imagine what we could do, with even more voices. xxoo.

  26. I am so touched by your vision, inspiration and contribution to this amazing movement of heart and soul, Yvonne. Thank you for allowing me to add my voice to the many. I am truly humbled.

    With blessings,
    Dani

  27. Pingback: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion | Mercy in the Madness

  28. Ah, Yvonne, you echo my sentiments. We worry so much that we forget that even a small act of random kindness can be the very thing that sustains another living being. I am so proud that you took that step to give that homeless boy soup. Ideally, I would like to be you, too. Sometimes I am. At other times, like you, I am scared. But as I wrote someplace else (so many posts to read) fear needs to be met with the courage of action and the willingness of the spirit. Yes, we all are equal (again something that I wrote, too) and by that relation, each of us deserve a chance when we think the doors are closed.

    Thank you for this opportunity. You gals must make this a yearly event.

  29. Pingback: Compassion: Through the Eyes of a Rat #1000Speak | Lori Schafer's Short Subjects I Feel Like Writing About

  30. Ah…. THIS!!! I love every bit of it, Yvonne! Your experience and your message is so real and true, it resonates with me and I’m guessing countless other people.

    My favorite part is about how that man taught YOU through his humility. Oh, how much I’ve learned through the same amazing response from different people. Sometimes, if we let the person simply sit with their voice, their words, their behavior- it allows the person to realize and become aware of their own need for growth.

    “His humility taught me humility.”

    And how you turned your own self critic into a self DOER… brilliant. Oh, how I love that!

  31. Pingback: IF WE WERE HAVING COFFEE: BUSY WEEK | willowdot21

  32. I’m taking away so much from this beautiful post, Yvonne – the subtle difference between the two definitions, the sheer futility of self-criticism, and the light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for sharing.

  33. Thank you, Yvonne, for having the vision and heart to start this great movement. Your story here is marvelous and I have often had some of those same situations and feelings. Anything I do is never enough, but maybe that is a good thing which compels us to continue to be more effective in our reaching out efforts.

  34. Pingback: Gifts From the Homeless – a #1000Speak post | Yvonne Spence

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