Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Rules of Compassion

When I boarded the subway this morning, one entire bench was taken up by a rather rough looking guy stretched out sound asleep. Now, you must understand how highly prized and fought over these seats are, especially during rush hour (which in New York runs roughly from 5am to, er, 5am).

I've witnessed some pretty scary battles over subway seats before, so the fact that this guy was shutting 4 or 5 people out of a place to park their bums was cheeky (no pun intended), indeed. But there he was. Snoring away. He was a big feller, too, so not even one person could have squeezed into part of the seat.

I found a seat right off, so he didn't cost me a place of comfort. But as I watched him (sleeping) - and the reactions of others as they crowded onto the train - I found myself wondering why I didn't feel any compassion towards they guy. Who knows what caused him to have to sleep on the subway? What was it about his past or current life left him with no place to bed down except a hard bench on a noisy train? Was he just a lazy sum'beach or had he worked hard all night and just didn't have money to sleep anywhere else?

But I didn't dwell on those speculations. I was too busy trying to sort out why his being there irritated me so much. After all, I am in the compassion business, right? Do I only feel for the nameless hordes of folks "out there"? Why wouldn't the same feeling kick in when I'm confronted up-close-and-personal with someone who might need compassion? How do I take more notice of what's going on right in front of my face in the same way I do of Sudanese refugees or children with AIDS in South Africa?

Am I missing the point? Are there any rules of compassion?

10 comments:

Em said...

Some interesting observations you make! Surely, to actually lay down and sleep on a subway in NYC, one must be dreadfully tired. It is a noisy place! And truthfully, even if I could, I would be afraid to. The subway has always felt like a place where one had to be somewhat on guard...a bit defensive...not asleep and vulnerable.

But then, is that my prejudice and fear showing through? Perhaps.

Anonymous said...

You, my dear cousin are slowly but surely becoming a Democrat!! God bless you.

MaryB said...

Em - yeah, he must've been pretty tired. The subway's really not so scary but he was in a vulnerable spot.

Cuz - I've been a Democrat for 30 years. Where have you been? ;-)

Carey said...

The first rule of compassion is that if you have spent the previous day at hard labor attending an intense meeting and trying to keep your mouth shut, you will not have the emotional energy to exercise much compassion the next day. Don't worry, your stores will eventually be replenished!

MaryB said...

Carey - thanks for your pastoral care. It puts things in perspective!

Winston said...

You have just described what I call the Baptist Paradox. They will raise and spend millions to send folks on missions to remote parts of the world to spread the gospel and help the poor, sick, starving folks they find. But they shun and ignore the same kind of folks living in similar conditions right in their own town. And it is not just Baptists. You're a Southerner, you know of what I speak...

MaryB said...

Yes, I do, Winston, and that's what had me thinking this morning. I'm not always blind to what's going on around me, but it threw me for a loop being so irritated with the sleeping guy this morning. One of those soul-searching moments.

Joy Des Jardins said...

I'm pretty sure I'd feel the same way Mary...and, I think we're both pretty compassionate ladies. True we don't know the circumstances for that gentleman's behavior; but having been on the subway several times when I was visiting my daughter (when she lived in NY), it can be hard enough without someone taking up 5 or 6 seats that others can be sitting in. I'm kind of surprised the conductor (do they still have those?) didn't try to remedy the situation.

Anonymous said...

I think our level of compassion depends on many variables. For example, had the man been well dressed, wearing Gucci shoes. No matter how hard he had worked the night before I don't think he would have been cut any slack by anyone.
Say he wasn't so well dressed and several elderly, working class, physically infirmed women boarded the train. Bet he would have been roused.
Then say even more severely disabled persons boarded, would we then boot the old ladies out of the seat?
My point, the world is full of people needing and deserving compassion. Hopefully, they didn't all take the "A Train".
But then again your level of compassion would have also depended on whether you had gotten a seat or not. I know for a fact mine would.
Bro.

Liz said...

Oh, that's a hard one. I am pretty sure you would have the appropriate level of compassion for a needy child on an NY street. And I somehow think that if that had hapened on a different day you'd have felt differntly. So I suppose I'm saying that I think you just had a bad day, or a bad mood, or a tired state of mind ... I don't know but i'm sure it wasn't typical of you.

And with the best will and intention in the world some people just get on our individual nerves! Sometimes for no logical reason. WE're human. I'll just be glad that God doesn't have off-days!