Sunday morning, late 2002, York, UK. With my husband and two small children, I stroll through cobbled streets, passing a medieval tower, and a Gothic cathedral. Intricately decorated walls grab our attention, until the children tug our hands. “We want to see the trains!”
Our four-year-old stops every now and then to admire pretty things: weeds growing out of ancient city walls, swans on the river, clouds that look like cats. By the time we reach the public gardens that lead towards the Railway Museum, my husband and our younger daughter are ahead.
Sensing their impatience, I speed up.
I notice a young woman huddled by the side of the path, begging. I’ve read time and again that beggars are usually drug addicts or alcoholics. It seems hard to believe she could be either of those, out so early on a Sunday morning, but my daughter is sensitive and I am wary. We walk past.
Give her something. You don’t even need to give her money if you’re worried she’ll spend it on drugs. She’s hungry.
Like most mothers of picky eaters, I have food in my bag, salvaged from our hotel breakfast. I dig out two apples and turn back. “Here you are.”
“Oh, thank you!” She looks up, her face shining with surprise and gratitude.
Monday morning, winter 2007, Edinburgh, UK. I saunter down steps, heading into town. My kids have been ill, but are now back at school and I have a voucher for 30% off in Monsoon. Life feels light again after weeks of heaviness.
At the bottom of the steps is a man selling the Big Issue. As I walk past, I notice he looks cold. My breezy mood blows away, replaced by thunderclouds.
You don’t really need a new cardigan. You’re just being greedy. You should give the money to him. He needs warm clothes more than you do. He’s homeless and trying to make something of his life. You are selfish, and greedy. Go back, buy a magazine, and give him more.
The counter-attack begins. If I go back now, I’ll look stupid. Besides it would be patronising, sanctimonious. I don’t even like that magazine, because it’s poorly written. I’d be buying out of pity.
I keep walking, my feet dragging. In Monsoon, I take several cardigans to the changing rooms. The grey one makes me look grey and ugly, the red one has a yarn that crackles when I put it on. Synthetic. The blue’s big collar makes my broad shoulders look even wider.
Even with the voucher, I can’t justify spending so much money on something I don’t really need, can I?
A friend’s voice comes into my mind. Come on, treat yourself. You always do this! Stop being so hung up about money. Value yourself more. The tone is bossy, harsh, makes me feel ashamed, not valuable.
Instantly, I imagine another friend telling me I could find a good enough cardigan in a charity shop.
The argument in my head goes on. It’s not as if you even gave that man money, or as if you’ll go back, so how does not buying anything help him? It’s the same old story, there’s always something wrong with it isn’t there? You’re never satisfied! Just buy something.
I narrow it down to two cardigans and desperately try to like one of them. I try on the grey one again. Maybe it isn’t the cardigan’s fault my face looks pale. I am tired after dealing with sick kids, after all. Or maybe I always look this old and ugly, and am an idiot to think a new cardigan will make me look good.
I go home without a cardigan, but I don’t give the money to the homeless guy either.
July 2013, New York, USA. It is the last day of our trip, with heat so intense our clothes feel liquid and even our older daughter can’t be bothered to spend her last few dollars. In the previous days, we’ve seen the Empire State Building, strolled through Central Park, our daughters have stood in places where Dr Who was filmed, and we’ve been to the top of the Rockefeller Center. We’ve also seen beggars with signs saying they want money to buy weed and that they need money to get high.
Now, as we pass expensive designer shops, the heat is so unbearable that our daughters can’t even be bothered to look in the windows.
On the ground in front of one of those designer shops, is a long bundle. As we draw nearer, I see it is a person, a black woman, her hair in braids. Even in this heat, she is wrapped in a grey blanket. She is shaking a paper cup from Starbucks, and she is crying.
My family walk on, but I stand rooted to the spot. Maybe she is drug addicted, crying because she needs a fix, and my money might feed her addiction. But I don’t know that. All I know is she is suffering. I put a dollar in her cup, and for a moment, our eyes lock. I want to help, want to find the words to take away her pain. Instead, the words that come from my mouth feel worse than useless.
She haunts me, long after we return home.
September 2014, Edinburgh. On my way out shopping, I pass beggar after beggar. In a two mile stretch where there used to be three or four huddled together round bottles of cider or cheap wine, now ten or more sit, solitary figures looking at the ground.
On my way home, I stop at the first one, hunker down and ask him about his life, how he to got here, sitting on the streets, begging.
His story is one I will hear over and over from the many homeless people I speak to in the next sixteen months or so. He (mostly they are men, though lately there have been several women on the streets) had a relationship that broke up, or a relative who died, most often his mother. Sometimes he had a breakdown; often he is depressed.
Sometimes he tried to get a home, only to be told by officials that he isn’t entitled to one: he’s from the wrong city, or he left a house because repeated burglaries made him feel unsafe and so is intentionally homeless. Mostly he sleeps in graveyards, wanting to avoid the drunks that he believes inhabit the night shelters. He avoids most of the other homeless because of fear of violence.
Occasionally, he tries to persuade me to give him enough money for a night shelter and even more rarely he tells a story that shows he has lost all touch with reality. But mostly he’s just glad to talk.
For the first 1000 Voices link-up, I wrote about the homeless man whose humility and whose gratitude for a carton of soup deeply touched me. For months afterwards, I looked out for that man and when I didn’t see him, I hoped he’d found a home. Then, seven months later, I saw him again. I learned his name was Joe. He had been sleeping rough for years, sometimes on friends’ sofas, sometimes on the streets or in graveyards. He told me he got depressed and sometimes he wished he would die. He didn’t tell me this to manipulate me into helping him, but because it was how he felt.
I asked if I could buy him something to eat, but he said food made him feel sick and he’d just have a coffee. The café owner gave me a free cake for him, and he was pleased to get it.
While I was in the café, another man joined him. We talked a while, and his friend quietly said that Joe had given up on himself, didn’t see himself as worth anything and often felt too discouraged to try to get support from social services.
As I was leaving, I noticed this friend was leaning on a suitcase. I couldn’t remember if it had been there before he came, if it belonged to Joe. I hoped it meant Joe was getting a roof over his head for a while.
I wish I could tell you, but haven’t seen him since.
But there are two more homeless men I want to tell you about. The first I met about a month ago, when my daughter and I were out shopping. I gave him a small amount of money, and he gave me a larger amount of gratitude. While we talked, my daughter stroked his dog, who was old and greying around the muzzle. The man mostly talked about the dog, and how long they’d been companions.
I asked if he had anywhere to sleep that night.
“Oh, yes.” He said it so cheerfully, I expected him to tell me he’d got enough money for a hostel, but instead he told me about a place at the back of a store, where there was cover. “It’s only about six feet by four,” he said, “but it’s warm and dry so we are fine.”
As we walked away, I noticed tears in my daughter’s eyes. Mine are misting again, in admiration for that man. I thought I was helping him, but he gave me far more than I gave him. That he could be grateful for so little inspired me, and shifted my perspective of the homeless.
I see now that the homeless don’t need my pity. Compassion, yes. Support yes, but not pity. I gain from every interaction with a homeless person; with every encounter, I become more wholly me.
I guess I needed to learn this lesson again, because last week, visiting another city, we were walking back to the car after eating at a restaurant. I crossed the street to give money to a beggar in a doorway. Like the man with the dog, his gratitude was far bigger than the coin I dropped into his cup. He also had a covered corner where he planned to sleep, and that he was grateful for.
It feels better to talk to the homeless than it does to walk on by. It feels better to give them money, than to guiltily sneak past. It feels better to buy them food than it did to drop a few pennies into their cups. It felt good to give one shivering woman a cashmere sweater that used to belong to my mother-in-law. It feels good to contribute to another person’s life. It feels good to ease another person’s suffering, even if only for a moment.
That’s human nature. We thrive on connection; we shrivel in disconnection.
This is why people are drawn to write for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. It is why even small children tend to another in distress.
It’s not just that we like ourselves better when we are kind to others, it’s that when we say or do hurtful things, it diminishes us. Our true nature, the love that is at our core, shrivels and gets buried, hidden away beneath defensive pain.
This isn’t even a moral issue. I’m not a better person when I’m kind – but I am a more authentic person, closer to my true nature. It hurts to feel anger or hatred.
It strikes me as odd that a year ago, when I looked up definitions of compassion for our first link up, several stated that it is a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another. This implies that it hurts to feel compassion, that maybe we’d be better off shielding ourselves from it, shutting ourselves off. Yet, to me, that definition shows how little some people, dictionary writers included, understand compassion. As far as I’m concerned, it hurts far, far more to shut ourselves off from another’s pain.
It hurts in the short term, because it creates guilt, shame and all the other feelings I’ve illustrated in the vignettes above. It hurts in the longer term because it cuts us off from each other and it cuts us off from our authentic selves. We live lives that feel empty, soulless, barren.
Compassion for another isn’t a gift we give to them; it’s a gift we give ourselves. That is what I have learned in the year since we began 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion.
Let’s celebrate this gift to ourselves!
Compassion for another isn’t a gift we give to them; it’s a gift we give ourselves.
This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Celebrating A Year of Compassion.
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