Outside our local supermarket, there’s a young woman who begs. Well, that’s not entirely true. She may be young, perhaps thirty or so, or she could even be rounding sixty; it’s hard to tell, the streets haven’t been kind (when are they ever?).
And she isn’t really begging, either. She squats, head bowed, a dirty cap of coins out in front. She is too worn out to ask for anything.
Just around the corner from my house there used to be a low-rent hotel. A squalid place but affordable for people fresh out of jail, or with drug addiction, or mental illness; prostitutes and petty criminals; sometimes all rolled into one.
The paint was peeling, syringes stayed stuck in the nature strip after having been thrown out of broken windows, and the occasional shrieks from behind the double-brick walls did nothing to lessen my sense of dread whenever I hurried past.
Through my work, I came into the orbit of people who cared for some of the tenants. Social workers, nurses, doctors and others, who in addition to their daylight work hours also volunteered on weekends, nights and holidays.
They didn’t boast about it. In fact, when I discovered that one of my colleagues was working at a soup kitchen, she asked me to keep it quiet because grandstanding on good deeds wasn’t her style.
Later, I mingled in circles where philanthropy was a thing. And even though there was distance between giver and receiver, the depth of feeling of the givers was tangible; they were touched by individual stories.
Many of them preferred their donations be anonymous, and the recipients would never know their benefactors. Thus, I came to appreciate that compassion can operate at a distance, limited neither by proximity nor identification.
At the time of writing, we are in the grip of an extraordinary crisis. Seemingly no-one is safe from an invisible enemy that ruthlessly picks off the elderly and unwell.
It moves with blinding speed, unhindered by borders, uninhibited by medicines.
Everyone is worried.
The boundlessness of kindness
Aussies and Kiwis are renowned for having big hearts, but after the bushfires you’d think our compassion would be exhausted.
Far from it. It’s not just neighbours, friends and strangers who have pulled together; businesses, too, are showing heart.
Supermarkets have carved out special times exclusively for the vulnerable. Banks have stepped up to the fight for the economy.
Countless other companies are thinking about people before profits. Formerly bickering sides of politics have put their differences aside.
And it’s not just here. In France, a distillery is donating thousands of litres of alcohol to go into sanitisers, and perfume factories there will manufacture it for free.
In China, a businessman has offered a half million virus-testing kits to the United States.
In Romania, a cosmetic business is gifting more than a million tons of personal hygiene products. The list goes on and on and on.
Times are unbelievably tough, but just when you think corporations are solely about revenues, we see that many are led by people with heart.
We can watch choruses and orchestras forming across the balconies of self-isolated Italians.
And then there are the creative videos about social distancing, handwashing and the like by musicians, dancers, entertainers, policemen, comedians … and plain, old, non-celebrities from around the world.
These displays of compassion demonstrate that, paradoxically, physical distancing may actually be bringing us closer together.
How do we respond to people who make us feel uncomfortable?
But there is also another aspect to compassion. A more complicated one: how we respond to people who make us feel uncomfortable.
A shopper piling mountains of toilet paper into her car; an elderly man, cane in one hand, pulling armloads of cans into his trolley with the other. Or the parents we hear of who are stockpiling flour and rice.
It goes against the tribe, the community, the sense that we are all in this together.
We can’t help but feel a visceral reaction when we witness such behaviour. They’re scared, but who isn’t? So we ridicule or shame or make jokes about them. We cast them as bad, and that makes us feel better.
I was lamenting about this to my wife after a day of unrelenting media coverage. About the woman I saw speed away with her toilet paper booty.
About the old man and his cans. But that’s when she said something that made me think. Made me sit up in bed and shake my head in its utter obviousness.
And it made me realise why, after 20 years, I am still in love.
She said that compassion for strangers is more than just about charity. It’s more than just philanthropy. It’s about working at understanding, putting yourself in their shoes.
At appreciating that we can only guess at the possible miseries that may still resonate for others.
That compassion, real compassion, means not judging, or at the very least forestalling judgement before considering the circumstances.
Maybe the toilet paper lady had a brood of kids and no-one to help?
Maybe the man with the cane had been through the war, and his memories of famine were still fresh after seventy-odd years? Sometimes compassion feels uncomfortable.
The senseless behaviour needs to end. But how do we make that happen? It may be that selfishness is the driver, but when we say that, the discussion stops there.
Compassion is a kinder teacher than anger
Understanding that normally selfless individuals acting selfishly are doing so for a reason helps us better understand the causes.
Compassion is a kinder teacher than anger – I need only to think back to my own experiences to see that – especially when people are scared.
A man comes out of the supermarket, piles of pasta and towers of tins in his trolley. He spots the homeless lady, she says something, and he leans down to her.
He listens closely, and after a moment reaches into his cart. When he finds what he’s after, he withdraws it: a mango.
He hands over the fruit and her face explodes in a giant smile; so does his. He was listening to his better angels.
This morning, my wife asked me and our kids to imagine that we are one year down the track.
What are the things we are most proud of? How did 2020 shape us? Will we be able to look each other in the eye?
There and then, I resolved to begin each day to try and listen to my better angels. I’ll let you know how it goes.
11 acts of kindness
You don’t need to wait for the official World Kindness Day (on February 13 each year) to perform such acts.
Here’s some you can perform right now:
- Phone a friend or a lonely relative
- Give to a charity
- Ask after a neighbour’s wellbeing
- Pay extra attention to your partner
- Give your pet a treat or a nice long walk
- Pay someone a compliment
- Leave a large tip
- Take the time to listen to someone
- Do someone else’s chores
- Reconnect with old friends
- Tell a loved one you appreciate them