Fear and Compassion

Ten years ago, I walked by a screaming man. I just walked right by. He was standing outside a car with a back seat full of young children and screaming at a woman in the front seat.  I was with my husband, who was at that time my boyfriend. We had just come out of the grocery store, and to get to our car we had to walk right by this car full of children, the man yelling. I didn’t notice the children, I didn’t even look. My instinct was to ignore, to not get involved, avert my eyes out of self-preservation. After all, there had been a murder suicide outside this very store in the parking lot a while back, fresh in my mind as a reminder of who knows what could actually happen.  And, I didn’t want any part of any crazy drama, so the quicker I could get by this stranger and his public display of anger the faster I could forget it. So I stepped away, I walked on, unscathed, to let those people sort out their own bad situation.

My husband-then-boyfriend stopped once we had passed. I tugged him on, thinking about how he’d never lived in city, he’d never learned not to look.  It’s safer to not look.  He kept looking back, his fists clenched. He pointed out to me that there were kids in the car, and that it wasn’t right, this yelling, I think even more so with those kids in the car. I felt my fear flare up, that he might actually say something or do something and get hurt. I tugged him on, I pulled his hand towards our car, I might have even got behind him and pushed a little, and we left.

I wonder what my husband might have said or done if I hadn’t shushed and pushed and pulled him away to the safety of our car.  Would it have been at all effective if he had said something? Was I wrong to stop him, so that no one stood up for that woman and those kids sitting in the back seat seeing her get lambasted? No matter what the cause, to stand screaming at her, in front of children seemed so very wrong. If I hadn’t stopped him, would my husband have told the screaming man to knock it off? Could we have done more than call the police to report a public disturbance? And what were those kids learning if no one stopped… were they learning that it was acceptable to scream at someone in public and that no one would even blink an eye let alone stop to help someone in need? Maybe we should have stopped and asked the woman in the front seat of that car if she needed help. At what point do you take action rather than let fear stop you from acting?  Is it better to steer away from a situation like this that you know nothing about, unless you observe someone in danger of getting physically hurt?

In looking back, I feel a sense of regret and even shame. There seems to be an increasing lack in this world, of compassion and mercy and reason.  It doesn’t seem to have always been this way, but I may just be noticing it more and more.Is this just something that happens when you have a child: you start to notice the growing capacity of the world to harm what you love?

It seems to me to be a struggle to know when to act, and how not to get tangled up in something more than I can handle. I want to help, but I have a fear that it might invite trouble. Acting to help takes a sort of courage, even for something as simple as stopping for a lost dog in the roadway. It’s a small act of compassion, and so easy for some to drive by a dog in the road and assure themselves everything will be ok, because to stop means committing to action: stopping the car, potentially looking foolish to other drivers, approaching the dog, finding a tag, making a call, deciding what to do and where to take the dog if no tag. Before having my son, I would regularly stop my car for lost dogs running in the road, read their tags and call their owners, reconnoiter the neighbors, drop them off at animal control if no tags. It takes time, it makes for a messy car, but it’s a relatively small investment and without too much potential for drama. Now however, I don’t feel like I can safely load an unknown dog in the car with my son, so I’m far less likely to stop (and serendipitously, haven’t had the opportunity since), but I carry a leash in my trunk just in case. Our cat came from the side of a road, a kitten who was meowing piteously, mouth wide, eyes wide, recently dumped.  I initially drove by and noticed the meowing. I turned around for a second look, stomach sinking.  I drove by, turned around again, hoping almost that the kitten would be gone but it wasn’t.  I swore at myself and stepped out of the car, and the kitten ran up and somehow climbed up my long coat. He’s our cat now, an excellent mouser. Our former cat Joey had just died recently, so the kitten was a timely replacement. Sometimes these things can work out well. I also was able to get a stray cat and her seven kittens adopted, with the help of another.  Small, tiny acts of kindness. Of course, stray dogs and a cat are little baby step actions of kindness and compassion.  I’m still working out how to recognize and help when it’s people that are at stake, and what I might be able to do in my own small way.

It’s something that I have had to figure out slowly, that line between fear and action, in helping and not getting in over your head. It’s something that has to be negotiated each time the opportunity to act is recognized, sometimes lightning fast.  But I think that is where the possibilities in life are: in the negotiation we do each day, on the edge of action and the precipice of hope.  And so long as I can negotiate that line and take action, however small, then I feel I’m on the right track.

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn

Your experiences and insights welcome in the comments below.

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24 thoughts on “Fear and Compassion

  1. I too sometimes wonder how I would react in certain situations. Sometimes I have tried to help and felt like my assistance was not wanted. Other times I too fear I won’t know what the right course of action is. It is a difficult line to walk. As you state, I think recognising the moment of action is what matters – having the awareness and making the best choice we can at the time. It is all we can do. A lovely thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I popped over because you kindly liked a post and read this excellent thought piece that should help us all know such dilemmas are universal. I’m old enough to have walked past anger and aggression even if i might stop for an accident. Time to try and make done other difficult choices.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing this. It’s a common experience with many variations.

    I work in public schools and kids will sometimes disclose troubling information, from not enough food for breakfast at home to an older sibling talking about suicide. Fortunately, there’s a clear structure of reporting these things to counselors who can help connect a family to resources.

    We all hear that old saw about needing a village to raise children. Sometimes it isn’t comfortable or easy to be that village.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When I was very young I used to be fearless. I once challenged a bully who was beating another bully lifeless. I felt pity for the victim. No one deserves that kind of abuse. However, the one dishing it out warned me off by stating he would do the same to me! I of course backed down; the guy made four of me!

    As newlyweds my husband and I once saw a woman on the side of the road who’s husband/boyfriend (?) was abusing her, so we stopped to try to help. She told us not to get involved. He drug her back to his car and we tried to block the road with ours… He put is foot on the gas and at the last possible moment my husband floored it to get out of the way. He really would have rammed us. I just know it.

    As we are now senior citizens (It seems odd to admit that) we now call the authorities to come and handle these situations. We have to know our limitations and often a prayer and a phone call are the only thing we can do.

    You have such a good heart, and good sense too. Be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are a brave one! I used to be pretty fearless myself, once upon a time. Nowadays, I tend to ask more questions now, and think more before I act, so I will be safe, as safe as possible with a pretty good sense of self-preservation I think. And you’re right, often times people don’t want help, or it’s not possible to do anything, but I think there’s value in the offer and in the consideration given. Thank you for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a sensitive and beautifully written “essay. You so clearly identify the challenge we face almost daily. When to stop and when to walk by I think many of us are confronted by so much and so often that we have need to steel ourselves to walking by. of course these days one’s personal safety also becomes an issue. Kittens, kids, kooks, the challenges that we face daily help us to know who we truly are, even if we may not like what we discover. Thanks for being the sensitive soul you are and for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello there fellow #1000Speak contributor! *sigh* this is something I struggle with often. I’m impressed with how intuned you are to this push and pull between fear and action. What I’ve learned is the best thing to do is go by your intuition. Sometimes it is best to stay out of it, and sometimes it’s necessary to take action.

    Don’t ever feel regret though. Sometimes life throws us curve balls and we look back and think, “I could have dealt with that differently.” But you can still pray for that man’s family that they find the strength to walk away when it’s time. And that’s a very powerful way to show compassion.

    -Shannon (From Chicago)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jen @ Driftwood Gardens

    This is a beautiful post. You really hit the nail on the head – we DO have to negotiate our reactions to each and every occurrence in life. Sometimes we make the right call, sometimes not. The “not” times are the times we have to exercise our self acceptance and self compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re right, though – with a level of emotion that high, an interruption or a request to settle down would likely have been met with at best, resistance, and at worst, violence. Those situations are always awful to encounter.

    I know you said you feel regret about it, but if the memory spurs you on to determinedly undertake so many other acts of compassion, then it serves its purpose as an experience, even if you feel you could have done better, or dome things differently.

    Well done you for doing the small things, and for searching for others to follow your lead 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you for this post. Firstly, you are a wonderful writer. Presently, I have found myself in situations of personal engagement when other shun away. This engagement tends to be with the types most (but not all) can see the the instability a mile away and make a fake smile, continue a fake friendship with just to keep the peace out of fear of drama. When these types cross my path I usually allow them ample room to berate me and such, but when these types include my friends in their bulling and berating something clicks within me and I have a very low tolerance. My logical brain and my impulsive brain are at odds, where as another would listen to the flight response, I usually succumb to the fight. Engaging the drama, for the sake of loyalty. I find it hard to don the disingenuous smile for the sake of conflict avoidance. In a current situation I vacillate between compassion for this particular individual who has a history of bullying (many in my community warned me about her but are nice to her face because they fear her retaliation and figure she will make her own bed to sleep in soon enough with out needing to help tuck her in…) and anger for how she treats others. My compassion comes from the fact so many people are not real to her, how sad. And also if this action comes from a place of sadness and loneliness and possibly organic issues, I feel bad for being direct and defensive. Then on the other hand I get upset this individual is spreading rumors about me and my friends. It’s the action against my friends which makes ignites me. Anyways. Thank you for this message regarding compassion and action. I think it is needed, and perhaps the most compassionate thing a person can be is honest. With themselves and with others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree that the most compassionate thing one can do is to be honest with themselves and with others. And, I would add, to think about the short and long term implications, even if just for that split-second before a choice is made. We have to each navigate our own way, (and I would hope) with honesty and consideration.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: #1000Speak for Compassion on World Social Justice Day | Bean & Bantam

  11. Thank you for discussing this side of it and opening it up for further discussion. I’ve been there too, on both sides of it though. As a child growing up with ‘satan’, who’d lose his temper at the drop of a hat and as an adult witnessing it and not knowing what to do. 😦 One particular event still haunts me all these years later and I still wonder if I could’ve made a difference for that sad little girl in the store that day. I’ll never know, but I will never forget her. it still breaks my heart to think of that precious child….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, and for stopping by. It’s so difficult to know what to do, and there aren’t any clear cut answers. Sometimes there isn’t anything we can do to help, and perhaps even someone stepping in trying to help could inadvertently make a situation worse. But as hard as it is to know what to do, asking ourselves whether there is something we could do to help (but safely if bad tempers are involved), no matter how small. Sometimes there really isn’t. But asking provides opportunity to recognize when there IS.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I love this post. Thank you for sharing your experience. As I become older, I often weigh my responsibility to stand up in the face of injustice or pain against the potential risk. If I don’t speak or act, am I, in fact, condoning what I abhor? Consciousness regarding choices isn’t for the weak of heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is difficult to calculate potential risk, and to know what to do. I’ve been thinking that the question I should ask myself is whether there is something I can (safely) do to help. Not to ask myself whether I can fix something or right a wrong, or to swoop in, but to start at the smallest step, that being whether there is something I can do to help, even just a little. And to realize that it may not always be welcome or accepted.

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      1. It’s not easy, that’s for certain, and I applaud your kind heart. There are times when an offer of help is the obvious step, but the world is often unpredictably violent too. Sometimes the very best/safest thing we can do is call 911. That’s helping too.

        Liked by 1 person

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