The other day I was out walking my son in his stroller (my now constant occupation) when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I’d seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. I turned down her request and continued walking as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I’d kicked it away without any thought.

I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. Then I learned to set boundaries comfortably and my anger gave way to inconsistency: I’d sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story or how much it entertained me, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.
Given that at least one study has suggested roughly 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, if somewhat less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I’m asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I’m capable.


Greg Says:

May 20, 2009 at 9:20 am
Having a drug addiction does not mean someone isn’t worthy of your compassion or loose change. And living in your alley is precisely why you’re giving her money in the first place. You have been blessed with success and affluence while many people around you suffer and starve. To dismiss them because they take drugs to cope with their situation is not compassion.

Many people are addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. Yet, our society teaches us that those addicts are better than the addicts which take cheap drugs in allies to escape the reality of life.

Rather than sitting in judgment of the homeless in your neighborhood, try accepting them for who they are. Whether someone spends your 25 cents on McDonald’s, drugs, or real food. Does it really matter? Is it not their right as a human being to make their own choices?

If her drug habit really bothers you so much, there are plenty of ways you could help. A gift card for example. I don’t have money to give, but when I do, I share. Not very much, but a little.

Greg: I think you misunderstood where I was coming from in my post. I was attempting to be honest about the difficulty I have in mustering up compassionate action in certain circumstances. If I came across as being dismissive of the homeless woman who approached me, that wasn’t my intent. I FEEL great compassion for her but am frustrated by my own inability to take what I consider to be compassionate ACTION toward her, which in my view makes my feeling compassion for her worthless to her and to me. But I remind myself that compassion must be developed and nurtured, which is essentially why I practice Buddhism. I truly don’t judge her addiction to drugs, and her habit only bothers me in that I believe she’d be happier without it and that those around her would be, too. And it does matter to me where someone spends my “25 cents” just as it matters to me where the government spends my tax dollars. If I’d contributed money, even inadvertantly, to a terrorist organization, I would feel a sense of responsibility for that organization’s ability to terrorize. By giving a homeless drug addict the means to continue her addiction, which I believe due to my personal and professional experience leads directly away from happiness, I would then be contributing to her misery and not her happiness, and that is definitely not compassion in my book. As I pointed out in the post, compassion applied without wisdom can often create more misery than it resolves.


Judy Says:

May 20, 2009 at 10:12 am
Very thought provoking, Alex, as always. I’m so glad I found your blog. I understand your wish to engage with people who need help, but you had your infant with you. Perhaps not getting involved was the best choice for safety’s sake, even if the homeless lady is someone you know, just a bit. I give fast food coupons to people who ask for assistance. At least I know they can’t be used for anything else.

Judy: You raise an important point about safety I thought about but didn’t mention in the post. Fast food coupons are a nice idea. I think that what constitutes the most compassionate action a person could take will depend on what that person feels they have to offer. For me, it isn’t money, but something that would require more time and effort on my part to impart. I continue to struggle to challenge myself to more consistently impart it. This just represents the current boundary of my growth. Thanks for your comment and compliment on the blog.


mar Says:

May 20, 2009 at 10:07 pm
Thank you for your thoughtful post. Interactions with homeless or requests for money happen to all of us and pose the question, how will we respond? When this happens to me, I assess the need, as you said the Buddha would do. Sometimes, it is offhand, someone just collecting change without conviction. Sometimes, I feel panhandled. And sometimes, I hear or see the need there. I tell them I don’t carry cash, but I can go buy them food, or what it is they need at a nearby convenience store. It is what I would do for myself. One woman I remember took me up on my offer and we talked as we walked to CVS—an unlikely pair. She asked for a drink, chips, cough syrup, and then asked if she could get batteries: her cassette Walkman which she held, had died.

To me, happenstance is the only difference between us—our means, and that is transient. And batteries—for music—and cough syrup to stop coughing were her needs. $12 well spent. Her needs met were both our happiness. So, often, I am thankful for what someone asks of me, because I could not have felt the way I did without her.


Nina Says:

May 21, 2009 at 4:32 am
I am pleased to find your thoughts on being compassionate. Acting in a selfless manner, yet being able to decipher what is truly helpful to that other person. I work with autistic kids and find that the stronger the disciplinary action/consequence to bad behavior the better. I let them know that I care for them and want them to learn to do better. So punishing is not such a bad thing but is actually compassionate. I’m trying to think of a way to allow the kids to be in their autistic world though and drift into their own imaginations without so many terrible consequences. When they need to function like other kids, I need to remind them. This helps me continue feeling compassionate for them.

Lots of interesting and thoughtful ideas on the subject. Thanks for posting.

Camilla Onell Says:

May 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Thank you so much for this post and for your comment on my blog.

As it turns out, your thoughts on what compassion isn’t was exactly what I needed to read right now. Very confronting. I guess I know this already but I’m not living this truth at all. I am far too often giving people what they want. Still pleasing too much. And I needed to be reminded of that. Time for a change!

I will definitely follow your blog from now on.


Mary Elaine Kiener Says:

May 22, 2009 at 7:38 pm
Thanks for a lovely essay. Reminded me of a time during my late husband’s illness when I had the opportunity to explore the concept of compassion in a more direct way. A wonderful lesson at the time, and a timely reminder now.

The Good Guy Contract « Happiness in this World Says:

May 24, 2009 at 7:05 pm
[…] Be compassionate. Freed of the need to be liked, I can now contemplate compassionate action motivated only by the desire to add to the happiness of another person and not by the imperative to sustain my self-esteem, which makes it far more likely my actions will be wisely compassionate as I discussed in a previous post, What Compassion Is. […]

Nicki Says:

May 25, 2009 at 3:30 pm
Excellent blog. I always enjoy your posts.

Just my two cents: I used to work in an area with a very poor population and a lot of homelessness. I had frequent requests for money to buy food. It made me feel bad to refuse if there was a real need. So I came up with a compromise. I always offered to go to the within-walking-distance grocery store with the person so they could pick out what they needed or to the nearby McDonalds. No one ever took me up on the offer.

Nicki: Such a difficult and complex problem, homelessness. I admire you for your efforts. Must have been difficult not to become jaded, having your offer to buy food rejected so consistently. Thanks for your comment.


rdp Says:

May 26, 2009 at 11:20 am
I am coming very late to this conversation, and perhaps my questions aren’t pertinent to the particular issue you try to grapple with here, Alex. Still, I’m offering the following:

I may be too much of a literalist, but, to me, compassion means suffering with. I don’t think it has much—if anything—to do with caring for the happiness of another. Rather, it’s about that moment of recognition in which you see yourself in the other person (or vice versa). It is almost impossible for me to avoid this reaction with people who are less fortunate than I am because, like “mar,” I feel in my gut that “happenstance is the only difference between us—our means, and that is transient.” It has taken me many years to be brave enough to do what mar does, but it does feel like exactly the right thing. I do not give cash, but ask what is needed. It is a very, very small thing, but I have never felt as if I showed my daughter something as important as when I engaged with a panhandler this way. Of course, one must assess the situation and risk, but to try to respond with humanity seems, to me, the real challenge. If you met a former neighbor homeless on the street, wouldn’t you ask what s/he needed? Even if s/he were a drug addict? And all of these people were once someone’s neighbor, someone’s child.

What troubles me more—and more frequently, usually daily :^—is how to cultivate compassion for privileged people who remain oblivious to the consequences their self-centeredness visits upon others. While I can, in theory, view them as spiritually impoverished, they do so much more damage to the common good than do panhandlers, I end up feeling that “compassion” for them is misplaced. How on earth can you offer compassion to someone who regards him/herself as superior and who feels no discomfort on account of being oblivious? Is the answer simply to ignore them until they become aware of their own suffering?

rdp: Reasonable people can of course disagree. As I wrote in the post, what you define as compassion I would define as empathy, which absolutely often accompanies compassion (and perhaps is a necessary pre-condition), but perhaps my response to your last question about the privileged will delineate the distinction best: I can have compassion (that is, care about the happiness of the privileged) because their self-centeredness is, in my view, merely the result of a different set of delusions that brings a homeless person to homelessness. People of privilege aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else—and often are quite a bit less so. In my view, EVERYONE regardless of station in life is deserving of compassion, deserves to be happy, and deserves our empathy. Certainly harder to muster for people who seem to be only concerned with themselves, but if you accept my notion that anyone can suffer regardless of life station, why should we have empathy and compassion (as I define them) only for people who meet certain requirements (eg-exclude those who are selfish)? Even selfish people “were once (perhaps your) neighbor and were once someone’s child.” Thanks as always for such a thought-provoking comment.


rdp Says:

May 26, 2009 at 12:49 pm
And so frequently do!

I think our disagreement arises out of the definition of compassion. The standard (OED) meaning is “1. Participation in another’s suffering; fellow-feeling; sympathy. 2. Pity inclining one to show mercy or give aid. 3. Sorrowful emotion, grief.”

Caring about the happiness of another, I don’t believe, relates to this. Perhaps we could agree on the term “loving,” which at least in one of its senses “manifests itself in concern for the person’s welfare….?” It’s easier for me, at least, to think of it this way. I think we must be compassionate to all who suffer and try to cultivate a loving attitude to everyone else—even those who don’t. But I really struggle to do this in specific instances, where you see the obliviousness taking a toll on people who are already suffering. Or so it seems to me…..

Grateful, as always, for your caring presence here.

rdp: I guess with respect to compassion I’m moving away from the dictionary definition and more towards a philosophical definition. However, I agree with you about the relevance of the term “loving,” which in fact is what I think compassion is all about (and maybe therefore why it’s so hard to define). “Concern for the other person’s welfare”—yes, exactly. I’m just not so sure one needs to suffer themselves in order to feel that for another. Glad there are people like you out there thinking seriously about these issues and trying to embody good and right action when they can.


jrs Says:

May 26, 2009 at 3:21 pm
What a coincidence. Just this morning I gave $2 to an old woman huddled between her overflowing grocery cart of possessions and the wall of building. She didn’t ask me for it—my heart just went out to her and I felt I had to so something, so I did. After all, what does two bucks mean to me? Even if I will be unemployed come July 1.

jrs: I sure don’t have the solution to homelessness but that people like you who are about to become unemployed still find the impulse to try to help others even less fortunate than themselves gives me hope.


carey Says:

June 5, 2009 at 7:19 pm
I know that your post is about compassion, but I would like to reframe one part of it in the context of generosity.

Generosity is related to compassion, in that compassion is one major motivation that results in the (often concrete, tangible) manifestation of generosity. Other motivations for generosity, such as fear of what the neighbors think, result in what we might call “false generosity,” whereas compassion results in genuine generosity.

Compassion is always abstract and invisible; generosity can be visible or invisible, abstract or concrete. Generosity can help other people. Compassion simply reflects one’s internal perspective, and can’t help anyone until it manifests in the action of generosity.

Compassion is like a general who stands outside the fray and watches the violence, feeling bad for the poor suckers who are involved.

Generosity is like the doctor who risks his/her life running onto the battlefield to try to save the lives of the wounded.

Without wanting to offend you, but in an attempt to shed another light on the topic here, your compassion serves nobody but you.

It seems that by labeling the homeless person as a “drug user” your heart permits you to exile her. What if she wanted to use your money for her morning coffee? As a doctor, surely you must know that caffeine is a drug. It makes people feel better.

You label drug addiction a mental disorder, but there are many experts who would not agree with that label. Once again, I have to ask if caffeine addiction is a mental disorder as well, and if so, if caffeine users are not worthy of our financial generosity because they would just buy more coffee.

Your generosity has many strings attached. That is not true generosity. You are judging which ways of seeking happiness are acceptable to you, and placing your standards on other people. If you can’t allow her to spend the money on whatever she believes will relieve her pain or contribute to her happiness, your generosity is very limited. You have insufficient trust of other living beings. You do not permit freedom of choice or philosophy.

If someone wants to deal with the suffering of this life by using drugs, that is unacceptable to you, since your philosophy doesn’t agree with drug use. (Though, of course, it does—however, the types of drugs are limited. Tea, chocolate, and even alcohol and nicotine are presumably acceptable drugs to ease the pain of existence, whereas cocaine and heroin are unacceptable…because they are stronger? Does your heart have such limits?)

I think that you just wrote this to assuage the pain of your own conscience due to your inability to be generous with a fellow human being in need. You were overly judgmental, and decided that she wasn’t worthy of your generosity. Now, you (appropriately) are suffering due to the walls your have built surrounding your inner heart—the walls you construct each time you meet a person in dire need and turn them away, based on your judgments.

Drugs are one way that people try to deal with the suffering of life. Certain patterns of attitudes, some very negative, are another. Would you refuse to help a starving person because they often created negative thoughts, and by supporting their food habit, you would be permitting them to continue their negativity?

If you want to see true generosity, look to the sun. It gives its energy in every direction, regardless of whether someone or something is there to receive it. The pure love of the sun is what I aspire to.

By the way, you are not the only one who is scared of homeless people. Many people are deeply afraid that homelessness and poverty (and other types of suffering) will spread like a disease, and “contaminate” their own lives. Hence, they avoid homeless people “like the plague” (an apt metaphor here).

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