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.
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.Tweet
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.Tweet
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?
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.
In 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.Tweet
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.