Compassionate Dissonance

While taking a walk around the city the other day, I overheard a woman asking a large, well-dressed man for what I thought was directions. She was pretty young, pushing a stroller with a small child. I glanced back and saw the man shake his head, indicating to me that he either didn’t know or didn’t want to help the woman. Not wanting her to think that all Washingtonians are jerks, I caught up to her and asked if she needed help. As it turned out, the woman was not looking for directions but asking for money. She told me she was staying in a hotel in Alexandria with her son, trying to get on her feet and get some housing. I searched my memory banks to remember family shelters nearby but came up empty as most of my experience is with  shelters for men. I told the woman I didn’t have any cash on me (which I didn’t) but if there was an ATM nearby, I could get her some. To be honest, a part of me was hoping there wasn’t, but of course right across the street was not just an ATM but one from my bank, so I had no excuse to white about ATM fees.

I ended up giving the woman some money and introduced myself to her son and then wished them well on their way. She was very grateful and I think just genuinely surprised that I’d taken the time to help her.

I was struck, though, with a few things about the whole encounter. First, I realized how easy it was to have compassion on her. I could tell she was stressed and anxious, and my heart went out to her. In the same breath, I realized how often I don’t have compassion for the men in the community where I live and work, yet they are formerly homeless men with a myriad of addictions and other issues. It was just so easy because I knew I would never see her again. I could choose to only see her vulnerable side, her meek and needy side, the side that was grateful for whatever I could do. I could pretend that she doesn’t have personality quirks that would irritate me over time, or that she doesn’t possess a prideful or ungrateful bone in her body. When I come home, I am often overwhelmed not with compassion for our residents but with glaring radars that indicate that they are truly human. Part of me feels guilty for having such a high level of compassion for this stranger while often denying it to others closer to me, and part of me feels guilty for knowing that I prefer it that way.

Like so many people in my generation, I can be drawn to the seeming simplicity of short-lived relationships and experiences. Jumping from thing to thing often provides many of the highs and not-so-many of the lows. We can escape (by the skin of our teeth!) the dirty and grimy sides of life, though not necessarily the literally dirty and grimy parts because the thrill of such radical service is what drew us in in the first place. The reality is, the dirty and grimy parts of life are really just the mundane things, the non-extreme things, like the fact that someone never washes their own dishes or puts them in the dishwasher, or that they leave every single cotton-pickin’ light on in the house wherever they go. But if you only stick around just long enough to discover these truths but not have to live with them, I imagine life can maintain a surface level excitement for a very long time. If I’m honest, I find it much more appealing to stop and meet homeless folk on the street and buy them lunch over and over than to take a particularly frustrating resident out for coffee. Yet I know that while both things are good and needed, the second one, while harder, is more worthwhile in the long run.

The second thing that struck me was questioning why I turned to help the woman. I thought she needed directions; if I’d heard her original request, would I have stopped and helped? I honestly don’t know. I was out for a walk with a friend, odds are I wouldn’t have. I didn’t have any money at that point, so I probably wouldn’t have tracked her down so I could find an ATM had I known what she was really asking. I find this disconcerting, yet am grateful that God sidestepped my typical logic to introduce me to this woman.

Finally, a small part of me helped this woman because I knew that the man in the expensive suit was watching and had refused to help her. I was more than a bit perturbed that this gentleman wearing a $500 suit and smoking a cigarette couldn’t bring himself to give the woman some money. I wanted him to see me, to make assumptions about me like I’m sure he made about her, and see that I would choose to do something and not pretend like the problem in the situation was the woman’s modest request for some money to stay in a hotel.

I tend to think that experiences like this, while hopefully serving the woman practically and the man prophetically, are a gift to be grateful for because they bring to light the walking contradiction that I am. I want my motives and actions to flow from the life of Jesus in a logical way and I want them to be consistent with each other. But I also know that the one side helps balance out the equation–that often my motives will be true and my actions totally in error; other times my motives will be distorted and selfish yet God will give me the grace for my actions to drown out my silent and internal self-absorption.

Just for today, I am grateful that my dissonance humbles me before God.


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