Nov. 8th, 2011

midwestbuddha: (sparrow)
You can't hide what's in your heart.

He kill them wi' their love. Wi' their love fo' each other. That's how it is, every day, all over the world.

I want it over and done. I do. I'm tired, boss. Tired of bein' on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we's coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There's too much of it.


-- John Coffey, The Green Mile


These words, written by Stephen King, have resonated with me for a long time. I do find it ironic that our innate compassion is so often short-circuited by our improperly seen love for one another.

The other day, my husband and I were on the way to the dentist. His office is downtown, in a part of the city that is still considered upscale. But, as in most cities, there are always places where the homeless take shelter. As we were coming up from the parking garage, we encountered a man sprawled in the stairwell leading up into the hotel above. As we passed, he said in a blurry voice that it was cold outside and he didn’t remember getting there. And my husband just casually commented with something like, “Oh no! That’s not good.”

As we came up into the hotel I turned to Dave and said, “We are so lucky not to be in that position.” He nodded and we moved on toward our appointment.

What was I feeling in that moment? Looking back, it was aversion, guilt and compassion, in that order. When I pass a homeless person without helping them, it has often been because I have nothing to give—I broke the habit of carrying cash some time ago when working in a bad neighborhood and have never regretted it. Sometimes I have small change but often think it won’t be enough to really help. And of course I often hear the voice in my head that says, “They’ll just buy liquor with it. Is that really helping?” Often, lately, I regret that I didn’t do something. I feel so fortunate to have the life I have, and nowadays most of us are a paycheck away from being out on the streets ourselves.

On the way back from the dentist that morning, guess what? The homeless man was still there. Except now he was off the stairwell and into the elevator foyer. The machine where my husband would enter our ticket and put his debit card in to pay was less than a foot away from where he stood.

Now—did I think: awesome! I can help him after all! NO. The truth is I froze, a whirl of alarmed thoughts going through my head, mostly involving whether we were safe in this situation. Dave glanced at the man, who said something like, “I drank so much last night I don’t remember getting here, man. It takes the pain away.” The entire time he was saying this, he kept his back to us, but I could see his hands were moving. What was he doing? I worried. Was he getting out a knife or gun?

Dave pulled a dollar out of his wallet and gave it to him, saying, “Here, go get yourself some coffee.” Then he paid our parking fee as well.

The man turned around, hands empty, took the bill and thanked him. That’s when I realized there was a heat duct behind him and he had just been trying to warm his hands there. The other thing I saw was that he never met my husband’s eyes—never. He couldn’t. He was too ashamed.

And I know exactly how he felt--because I was, too.

How often do we let fear get in the way of compassion? Far, far too often. We know that we’re here to love and nurture one another, but the violence we see around us keeps us from helping the very people that need it.

Am I suggesting you call down every dark alley where you see a homeless person apparently sheltering? No. That would be practicing idiot compassion. What I’m saying is, be a little braver, get a little closer, give a little more. Because awareness isn’t enough—you need to act.

I will, too. Just a little. Maybe, just maybe, that’s all we need.

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midwestbuddha

June 2012

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