Last week I was feeling good about myself. Just come back from a good church meeting, singing one of the songs and stopped at the traffic lights. It was late, and being the observant “alert” guy I am, was looking around. And as is the case at most major traffic lights, there was a guy standing there begging for money. He came up the window. I responded by saying “Sorry I’ve got no change.”
It was his response that got me, “hey, you went to Boksburg High didn’t you?”
“Yes?” I replied, a little confused.
“Well, you may not remember me, but we were at school together” (I didn’t remember)
“Ok…So how are you doing then?” I asked clichéd not even thinking- (He’s not doing well, he’s living on the street, dammit!)
At this moment the lights changed to green, my car started edging forward slowly.
He looked at me and said “well, not so good as you can see, when you’ve got some time I’ll tell you how things fell apart in my life”
At this moment my conscience started rising up… do I stop?
I said goodbye and carried on driving, even considering stopping at the petrol station to turn around but instead went home, feeling quite guilty that I didn’t stop.
Here was a guy, who was no longer an unknown, faceless tramp on the street. But someone who I went to school with. Someone who quite easily could have been me. I must be honest, I didn’t think about this “chance meeting” again, until I picked up the book Compassion Revolution by Dave Donaldson, cofounder of Convoy of Hope. In his book, Donaldson writes that compassion means “to suffer with“. To come alongside someone in the midst of their suffering and pain. It is to have, “an internal churning of deepest sympathy and compassion, to grieve with the grieving and hurt for the hurting”
Now, to be honest I’ve been in those situations where I’ve come alongside someone who is grieving, hurting or sick, a family who has lost a loved one tragically in a car accident, an operation that went wrong, a hijacking that turned into murder. I’ve had compassion, deep hurting compassion for these people who we could easily call victims, survivors, invisible heroes.
But what about those who are not victims? How do I find compassion within me for those whose situation is self inflicted? Usually, I’ve not. Coming from a background of battling alcoholism, I have a limited “compassion” tank for a drunkard or addict at times. When I’ve worked with the police, I’ve been cynical and hard hearted. I’ve practised what Donaldson terms selective compassion.
I know I’m not alone here. Most people do. We “differentiate between those we deem deserving of it (our compassion) and those we don’t”
Our compassion extends to the 11 year old head of a household whose parents passed away with AIDS, but not as far as the prostitute or street worker who has a TIK[ii] addiction, giving up her self dignity for that next hit or blow. The mother at the traffic lights ‘using’ her child, or someone else’s to gain support or donations. It is quite possible that because we have been exposed to so much suffering in South Africa, that we are immune to another persons sob story, becoming cynical and non-compassionate, unless the sob-story is something that we are prepared to relate to.
Of course, that makes sense because there are many chancers, con artists and manipulators of the system out there trying to part money from us. But still, they are in the minority. The vast majority of people who are suffering in our beautiful country are genuine victims of circumstance, tragedy or bad decisions. But we don’t see them. We are selective at times.
Now coming back to the concept that compassion means to suffer with, I get the suffering part, having experienced deep empathy with the victims I’ve helped but what does to be “with” really symbolise?
This morning while taking my son to school, I drove past an informal settlement[iii] close to where I live. Rubbish is strewn across the pathways people take on their way to work. Recently they protested about the lack of service delivery. These people are poor.
Donaldson writes that the principle of with can change the way we see social problems and view the poor. To distinguish ourselves from the poor but using labels such as “the haves” and the have-not’s, or those less fortunate than ourselves doesn’t help us to truly make a difference to their lives. Because quite frankly, we don’t always understand.
Henri Nouwen writes in his book Compassion, “that Compassion is not bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position, and is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below, it means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there”[iv]
Now, I don’t think he meant ( at least I hope not) that we go set up home in the squatter camp, but he did mean that we need to adjust our attitude and understand what people are going through. To, metaphorically build a home among the poor, (including the poor in spirit) to be with them, to listen to their struggles; to truly understand their battles.
When we look around at the struggles South Africa faces; our poverty, the high crime rate, addictions and social injustices, we need to acknowledge that change takes place when we change our attitude.
Change starts with me.
So, could you be a Compassion Revolutionary and make a meaningful difference in the lives of those “less fortunate” than you? Will you start understanding by being with someone who is a have-not? Can you?
Go on, South Africa needs you to. South Africa’s problems of poverty, crime and social injustice will only change when we understand and start revolutionising our response. Change starts with one person changing.
The next time I get stopped by my ex-school friend, I’m going to stop and find out what happened to him. Just a small step in the right direction to being a Compassion Revolutionary. (perhaps I’ll even go looking for him on the street….)
[i] (Dave Donaldson, 2010)
[ii] Tik, South African slang for Methamphetamine (USAN) (pronounced /ˌmɛθæmˈfɛtəmiːn/ listen) (also known as methamfetamine (INN), N-methylamphetamine,methylamphetamine, and desoxyephedrine) is a psychostimulant of the phenethylamine and amphetamine class of psychoactive drugs. When used illicitly, methamphetamine is commonly referred to as “crystal meth“, “meth“, “crystal“, “ice“, “p“, “shabu” or “glass“.
[iii] informal settlement:n (Sociology) South African euphemistic a squatter camp, also known as a shanty town (also called a squatter settlement) is a slum settlement (sometimes illegal or unauthorized) of impoverished people who live in improvised dwellings made from scrap materials: often plywood, corrugated metal and sheets of plastic. Shanty towns, which are usually built on the periphery of cities, and often do not have proper sanitation, electricity or telephone services.
[iv] (Henri Nouwen, 1983, p. 27)