Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Active Compassion

I work for a non-profit organization that provides permanent housing to homeless people on Skid Row. A woman who is waiting for housing said something to me yesterday that took me by surprise: "You all have beds at night so you're in no rush to find me a place to stay! You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you!" My first inclination was to defend our organization and the work we do--we try to house people as fast as possible any time there is a vacancy, but there are just more applicants than rooms. But as soon as I opened my mouth I realized that, regardless of how hard we try to provide housing, she was right.

Even though all of us in the organization really care about the homeless, at the end of the day we get to leave Skid Row and go home to our own beds. As I drive home each day, she's waiting in line trying to get into one of the shelters. While I'm eating my salmon and asparagus in lemon butter for dinner, she's eating the shelter's cafeteria food. Every night while I sleep in my own room, she's grateful to be sleeping in the shelter again. After I leave work, her problems don't even cross my mind.

I'm not saying that I should constantly be worried about everyone's problems. There is nothing I can do to magically transform Skid Row. There is nothing we can do to house everyone instantly. But that woman was right--it means a lot more to her than it does to me. And that's shameful. I should care just as much as she does.

It got me thinking that we (Americans, Christians, humans) need to have a greater sense of urgency--truly active compassion--for the problems we see around us. It is so easy to give 47¢ to the homeless guy on the corner and then walk into Gap and drop $100 on a sweet pair of jeans and a sweater. We feel good that we made a contribution to someone who needed it, but it isn't good enough to care about someone for thirty seconds only to revert back to our self-centered consumerism. Compassion and action need to consume us to the same extent that poverty and problems consume the lives of those who are less fortunate.

"You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you." Of course that's going to be the case--the person who needs help is going to value it more than the helper--but it shouldn't be so lopsided. We shouldn't give so apathetically to someone who's crying out in need. It should be embarrassing to us that our cities can't provide enough beds for the homeless, let alone the psychiatric and counseling services they need. It should be embarrassing that we get distracted so easily and we forget about the poverty in our backyards. It should be embarrassing that sometimes we don't even notice. We need to exhibit active compassion toward others--we should care about others' problems enough to do something about them.

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