Why I don’t feel enough compassion

It was a dark and rainy Friday evening in downtown Victoria. I felt like having a burger after watching a series of short IMAX films. I drove to a fast food burger joint close by, ordered a couple burgers, and sat down. After a few bites into my burger, I couldn’t help but notice this lady who came in.   She looked decrepit and hungry. She was either homeless or was living in less-desirable conditions. Her facial expression looked desperate.  She looked as if she had been aged prematurely either by drugs or alcohol.  I saw her rummage through the trash in the restaurant; and as I watched, my heart sank.  She was desperate and hungry.

Usually, I ignore transient people on the streets; but tonight, sitting right in front of me was a person opening the trash to look for scraps of food.  Though I wanted to ignore her I could not.  It was extremely challenging to enjoy eating my Whopper while watching her dig through the trash bin.  It was getting quite uncomfortable.  My heart was sinking.  I also couldn’t ignore what I was feeling. Sadness and sympathy.  I hadn’t felt this way in a while. Normally, I would assume store policy would prohibit people from coming in to search the trash bins. Store was likely under-staffed.

I was also feeling a heavy sense of guilt weighing down on my heart. Part of this guilt was due to some of my dark and uncompassionate thoughts.  “Why did I have come into this burger joint tonight?  Why couldn’t it have been on another night? Why did I have to sit myself down here in this spot.”  I had chosen this spot because I wanted some privacy.

I had ordered two burgers.  One was in my hand; and the other was still in the bag—still unwrapped and untouched.  I thought for a moment, “I should give her one of mine. I really should. I had two anyway.”  

My other thought was, “I’m still hungry myself too.  I could just gulp it down quickly and walk out of here fast.  My mind and heart were battling between these two alternate thoughts. Something within me refused to follow through with this latter thought—on this evening anyway.

I stood up, walked up to her and said: “Ma’am, have my other burger in this bag.” I handed her the bag, then returned to my seat, and finished my burger. This discomforting feeling didn’t go away.  

She continued to rummage through the other trash bins in the restaurant.  A minute later, she returned and told me: “Thank you.”  I nodded back in acknowledgement.

After I did this, it felt a little better—but not much better.  I asked myself afterward, “Did I truly do this for her, or was it for myself?”  Maybe a bit of both.  What do I mean by, “for myself”? I discomfortable seeing her dig through the trash to look for scraps was unbearable.  I could get rid myself of this discomfort by simply giving her my burger. Instantly, my guilt would be gone. But that would be for my own sake. What about her? She still had a hungry tummy to fill or she’d be going to bed without dinner.

This lady was desperate–desperate enough to dig through the trash in the restaurant with the eyes of customers looking at her. She obviously had nothing to lose by doing this.  She could care less if others saw her digging through the litter. The person who was most self-conscious was probably myself—not her. I’m the one with the problem. The moral and ethical issue was duelling within me.

After I finished my burger, I was still hungry. I decided to walk up to the front to order a second one.  I still had a sense of guilt mixed with a sense of satisfaction of having done something good.  But was it really “good” or was it something any decent human being would have done?   I have a job that pays a reasonable salary.  Can’t complain.  She couldn’t afford a simple burger.  

After I placed my order for a second burger, this same lady came up to me and thanked me again a second time.  I asked her if she would like another burger.  She didn’t tell me either yes or no.  I would have given her another one if she said “Yes.”  I probably should have given her a second burger anyway—even without an affirmative “Yes.”

She began sharing with me that she was living in a hostel close by on $10 per night.  Then she pulled out some change and placed it on a counter-ledge next to me.  It couldn’t have been more than a dollar. Not sure why she did that.  Was she trying to pay me back a little something?  I certainly didn’t expect anything.  She then put her change back in her pocket and walked away.  

I admit it. It was an uncomfortable situation for me.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this brief interaction.  Not sure why she share this bit of herself with me.  Was she wanting to share with me more of her life story?  Or was she probing if I would be willing to give her some money?  I didn’t know.  I just had all kinds of questions but was afraid to ask further.

I was feeling a little too uncomfortable to know what to ask or do. My heart was preoccupied with this moral and ethical duel within myself. I feared more for myself than for her. I feared that I didn’t have enough compassion to bear the load required to love another human being.

Anyway, after picking up my second order, I decided to take it to-go in a bag. I wanted to eat in my car. I was parked on the 4th floor of the Johnson Street parking garage.  Weird thing to be eating a meal in a such sterile environment—facing the grey concrete walls of a parking garage. As I was chomping down on my burgers, I was running through some thoughts in my mind. 

“What was her past life like?  Was she always like this or did she once have a better life? Perhaps, she could be a divorced mother with kids who were sent to foster homes? How did she end up in such impoverished conditions ravaged with substance abuse?  What if she had lost a good job, had fallen on hard times, and had somehow gotten trapped in depression and mental illness?  Might she have been taken advantage of by crooked men who forced her into a state of dependency?  All these “What ifs” were running through my head.  And what if I were in her position or circumstance?  How would I feel?  And what would I to do?”

I also realized something else.  People who regularly donate their pocket change to others on the streets see them as brothers and sisters in need. They are actually far more compassionate than me.  They are far more willing to lend a helping hand. By their standards, I would consider myself a heartless and uncompassionate person. Such a weird thing to think about myself in this way.

This evening revealed something of myself.  I don’t feel enough compassionate for the poor and hungry. Others with more compassion are more willing to give. Why so? They might be people who knows what it feels like to have fallen into hard times.  At one point in their lives, they might have been in dire straits themselves and have received grace. This is why they know how to say, “Thank you and God bless.”  

I don’t feel enough compassionate for the poor and hungry.

I’ve been a poor student in my young bachelor days.  My life nowadays is too comfortable. Today, I don’t feel the compassion I used to feel.  Considering that I’m a Christian, isn’t a Christian supposed to be as compassionate as Jesus?  Yes, but…

I hadn’t felt this uncomfortable in a long time; but this wasn’t the first time I had seen people digging through the trash looking for scraps of food.  I had seen this almost every time I walk through downtown, but why today?

Days before this incident, I had been thinking to myself, that perhaps I should be giving more of my time and of myself to serve the poor in downtown.  Not sure why I’ve been having these thoughts.   Was God speaking to me through this event? Was God showing me that I ought to do something more for others?   Helping others in abject poverty has been a neglected part of my life for many years.  Was this just coincidence, or was God trying to tell to me something?

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libertyculture

Reflections on when faith & the scriptures intersect life & society.

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