Many of us believe that we are compassionate people. But are we really? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary formally defines “compassion” as the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
In our daily lives, some people think of compassion as “love in action.” Many religions encourage us to strive to be compassionate people and admonish us to “love our neighbor.”
Summarizing these definitions, it would appear that compassion could be defined as “love in action for our neighbor in distress with a desire to alleviate it.” So, whether we are compassionate people depends upon our own attitudes and desires to help.
Personally, I believe that we are all, with the possible exception of a very few, born with compassion. Thus, for most of us, the quality of compassion is already within ourselves from birth — we need only to find and awaken our compassion. Further, as we live our lives we can choose to nurture and expand this quality, as we are encouraged by many religions, if not all, to do.
But, what about the “neighbors” for whom we have compassion? Do our neighbors have any role in our developing or exercising our compassion? It would appear, at least from the above discussion, that our neighbors do not. However, what our neighbors do, how they appear and what we expect from them may influence how easy it is for us to exercise and develop our compassion.
The easiest example of this is the whole topic of babies. It has been said that babies are born adorable and loveable, at least to their parents, so that their parents will take care of them regardless of how much work is involved. And most of us know and expect that there is a tremendous amount of work involved in caring for a baby.
Then we have the examples of children and adults with special needs who cannot take care of themselves and must rely on the compassionate treatment from others. Their caretakers know and expect that their jobs will be challenging and yet, ultimately rewarding.
There are also those people among us who have suffered a personal or family loss. These losses can be traumatic events affecting people’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Included within the losses that people can suffer is the loss of everything people once possessed. For most people becoming homeless can be a traumatic event.
For whatever the cause, homeless people have suffered the loss of what most of us consider our human basic needs — they have lost their personal shelter, their expectation of having food on a regular basis and most of their clothing.
Whether homeless people are sheltered or unsheltered, they have, for whatever length of time, lost their personal experiences of having their own homes. When people lose their experiences of having their own homes, they may also lose their hope for having their own homes again.
Even their feelings of self-worth may be negatively affected by the trauma they experience as a result of their homelessness. For example, a homeless friend of mine recently said, “No matter what you say or how you treat me, I know that I’m at the bottom of the food chain.”
As with any of our responses to traumatic events, the hopefulness experienced by homeless people by virtue of becoming homeless may be expressed physically, mentally and/or emotionally. The results of the traumatic event of becoming homeless may also be expressed by some homeless people through the misuse of substances, including cigarettes.
In addition, because we as a society have provided few public bathrooms, showers and even fewer public laundries, many homeless people may not have access to facilities where they can perform acts of basic hygiene. The results are obvious — homeless people often appear disheveled.
Finally, we housed people often expect homeless people to “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps” and become housed again. Please see my article, Homelessness Myth #15: “Just Pull Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps,” in this regard.
Because many homeless people are and remain unhoused, our expectations of them to become housed, among other things, are not met.
It is basic human nature that when people do not meet our expectations of them, we may become disappointed and/or resentful. Without greater understanding of ourselves and others, we are unlikely to extend compassion to those whom we feel have failed to live up to our own expectations, who have disappointed us or to whom we feel resentful. Hence, we housed people with unreasonable expectations for homeless people may feel disappointed or resentful of them because they have failed to live up to our unreasonable expectations.
It is because of what homeless people do, how they appear and what we expect from them, that we may find it challenging to have compassion for them.
However, “our neighbors” includes everyone. Therefore, I believe that the test of true compassion is whether we can care for all of our neighbors, including our homeless neighbors whom we may find the most challenging to help.