An Eavesdropper’s Guide to Compassion

Acquire more compassion. That is one of my top personal goals: to appreciate what another person is going through without the weight of pity or guilt. Or discomfort. Or disdain. I’d like to think I’m making progress but mostly I’m just aware of all the other reactions that sully the compassion. I want compassion unencumbered by other emotions. But perhaps single, pure reactions are not the way humans respond.

The other morning outside Starbuck’s, a youngish man was talking to himself. There is something distinctive about self-talk, you hear it and you know he’s not talking to a person or into a device. He walked rapidly without purpose, ricocheting from spot to spot. He had shoes cradled in his arms, but only socks on his feet. When he entered Starbucks, most everybody acted like he wasn’t there, but stiffened and you knew they knew. Fresh back from a week in Manhattan, I was skilled at ignoring him. He stood behind me in line for a while, muttering and rapping. He came up with some spectacular rhymes, and sounded surprised when his words fell into place. He was impossibly high, on what I dunno. I couldn’t tell whether he was having a good trip.

After he left, a woman in line had a mom moment and expressed concern about his heading toward traffic. I looked out at him and for the first time saw somebody’s son. Suddenly I felt like a crumb for not reaching out to him, maybe getting him to sit down for a spell. Without provocation, he sprinted up the street and away. The woman kept talking about him to all the workers and now it seemed like there was gossip in her caring, which disappointed me. The workers told her that cops had earlier been out to chat with him. I had happened into one short piece of a recurring cycle.

The other night on the subway I sat next to a pair who must have been friends, maybe mid-20s in age. The guy said to the gal, “Have you seen Brian lately? I really don’t like him anymore, he has turned into such a loser. All he wants to do is sit around at home.” (GIrl murmurs unconvinced noises.) “Shelly saw him in New York. He flew out there for an interview with a director about a big part.” (Tone of voice conveys jealousy and frustration – apparently Brian blew the opportunity.) “Shelly thought the same thing. He’s acting like a loser. You know his dad tried to kill himself last year.” (Not clear whether this is offered as an attempt to understand, or further proof of what a loser Brian is.)

By now I hate this guy and wish Brian had better friends. Later I bring myself around to thinking about the life experiences that shaped this guy and prevent him from perceiving that Brian’s behavior could reflect emotional devastation. I remember my 20s as a time of cavalier disregard for so many others. Maybe he’ll grow out of it. I’m pretty sure that I finally have, although disdain still comes way too easily to me.

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