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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