A Touching Story of Compassion

Once again, time is still short and my resources are limited, but that won’t stop me from sharing whatever I can in the meantime (quick update: it may be another week until my laptop is repaired and I can start posting more voluminously and regularly).

Earlier today, a friend of mine informed me of fairly old but still relevant story from NPR about an interesting and rare fear of human compassion. It was inspiring enough that I immediately felt compared to post and reflect on. It’s brief, so I’ll copy and paste the entire transcript here. Anyone that wants to listen could click this link.

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.

“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.

The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”

The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

Needless to say, the fact that this happened 3 years ago isn’t important (indeed, I wouldn’t share it otherwise). Such seemingly rare stories are well worth reading and knowing about no matter the time or place of their occurrence. Good is good regardless of the context. I just wonder what I would do in this man’s situation.

Would I have freaked out and ran? Would I have cursed and yelled and damned that petty criminal? Would I have gone home downtrodden and misanthropic, feeling like I’ve lost a lot of hope in humanity once I gave my wallet up (as we’re apt to do when we’ve been trespassed by others)? What would you have done? Where does this sort of human kindness and empathy come from? Why did the mugger reciprocate it and show himself to be receptive to such kind words, when he ultimately had nothing to gain from it?

I know this is a common, if not cliche, gripe, but it always pains me to see what little attention we give to touching tales like this. It’s not just an issue with mass media either, which is in any case merely responding to demand: we humans seem to have a innate morbid curiosity towards tragedy, conflict, and fright – basically, to negative narratives.

I hardly have the time to reflect on the sociological, psychological, or even scientific reasons as for why this is – thought it’d no doubt be interesting – but I think it’s very important to keep all this in mind the next time we find ourselves saturated with news of death, destruction, incompetence, and numerous other manifestations of human failing and misery. Underneath it all is an unseen world where good deeds like this transpire all the time, never to get much attention (which if anything, makes them all the more beautiful).

We could argue which side of the story is more predominate – I’m sure most people find wrongness and evil to prevail far more than good – but in a world as perpetually confusing, overwhelming, scary as ours, any simple expression of humanity’s best qualities is a well needed respite, a flicker of light in the darkness if you will.


Portraits of the Homeless

As I’ve often lamented in previous posts, it’s not often many of us truly look at the human side of a lot of things. We hear so much about deaths here, or destroyed homes there, and other tragic occurrences that befall humans at every turn, and each time we react with a sort of perfunctory sense of sympathy.  Of course we feel bad, but we don’t truly know or understand the raw depths of these misfortunes. It’s not that we’re bad or selfish creatures, as most human beings are at least nominally moral or ethical (even if they have different standards of those things). There are many reasons for this disconnection from one another, including our limited cognitive and sensory abilities that literally keep us from being able to focus attention on too many sympathetic subjects, especially if they’re distant.

Of course, none of this justifies the level of callousness and even disgust that is often displayed towards the unfortunate. Homeless people are a case in point. It’s often assumed that they’re either crazy or lazy, if not both. Granted, there is a certain kernel of truth to these stereotypes, as with any: certainly, most homeless people, as far as we can tell, suffer from some sort of mental illness or another. And there are always going to be people who suffer misfortune due to their own neglect and irresponsibility. But to look down on all destitute people as vagrants, drug addicts, and wackos is not only a display of lazy, ignorant thinking; it dehumanizes an entire class of people who are every bit the same as us as we “better off” folks are to each other.

Regardless of which narrative you prescribe to, homeless people and other itinerants are pretty much ignored in most societies  (indeed, even in countries where people are predominately poor, you find vast amounts of segregation based on class and income, creating a virtual state within a state in some extreme cases). We go about our everyday lives not consciously aware of them, and even upon a chance encounter with one, we do our best to look away or not really acknowledge their existence. I know there are reasons for this beyond mere callousness, but it still fascinates me nonetheless.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who is curious about all this. A photographer  form the UK named Lee Jefferies has pretty much made a career out of depicting the rawness and depth of the homeless, giving them an intense level of humanity through detailed black-and-white portraits. Most of those pictured are from his native Britain, as well as continental Europe and the US. They all display striking character in their expression and features. Interestingly, many of them appear elderly or close to it.

A link to these images, twenty-five in total, can be found here, with many more available here. The collection is quite large, but the sheer diversity of subjects is captivating. If anyone is interested in looking at more of his excellent work besides that of the homeless, Jefferies  has over a hundred more photos of various other subjects in his Flickr account.

Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by homeless people. I grew up in a relatively well-off, middle-class family. I lived comfortably and satisfied, and the very idea of eking out an existence on the streets or in condemned housing seemed both unimaginably awful and remarkably inspiring. I thought about the lack of a warm bed, good food, personal amenities, and dignity. I thought of what it must be like to live in such a lonely, cold, dirty, and unhealthy environment, with everyone looking down on your or pitying you. You have to take your pick between being a subject of pity, often patronizing as it were, or outright contempt and hostility; you were either a poor, unfortunate wretch, or the scum of society. Either way, you existed in a different world that was shuttered away from most of the more fortunate.

As usual, I’m sure I’m romanticizing all this far more than I should. Reality is usually far more stark and straightforward. But I don’t care. It’s these victims of misfortune and cruel chance that remind me how luck I am to be sitting in the comfort of my room, surrounded by my nice things, writing about them. It’s their plight that has committed me to doing everything I can to make sure as many of them – if even just one of them – can be brought out of such misery and given a chance as possible. Few people deserve such a fate, and fewer still should be forgotten just because it’s befallen them. Anyone of us has as much chance as being in these photos as we do looking at them through our personal computers.

Many thanks to my good friend Mike for introducing me to these pics and, as always, spurring some deep reflections.