On Compassion, Crutches, and Regret

I was wearing a dusky red outfit that day, the knit pants and long-sleeved shirt all of the same fabric. A friend told me the material looked like curtains. A drizzle had begun to fall; I began to walk more briskly. I still needed to travel halfway across campus to get to my next class. Passing the cafeteria, I noticed him:  the guy from my statistics class who’d recently returned after missing weeks due to an accident. He squinted into the rain as he struggled up the sidewalk on crutches.

In sixth grade, I broke my foot jumping off our porch while wearing jellies, those plastic foot coverings that could hardly be called shoes. I’d hoped for crutches the day Mama took me for an x-ray. Instead, I received a prescription to wear a tight-fitting shoe with multiple pairs of socks to hold the foot steady while the bone healed itself.

Even though I’d never used crutches myself—not even when I believed I had needed a good pair of crutches—I could tell this young man was struggling with his. They were new, after all, and judging by the trauma he’d experienced, it seemed he’d need to use these for a long time to come.

Along with the crutches, a backpack full of books weighed him down, and time for the next class to begin approached. As he got closer, I knew I had a clear opportunity to offer help. To carry his backpack, or just walk beside him, or something—anything. To let him know he was seen, noticed, not alone.

But I said nothing. I walked past; he limped past. We each went to our next class. In the moment when I could have considered somebody else’s needs besides my own, I did nothing.

He was handsome, in a fraternity; I thought maybe I would look silly or stupid or not pretty enough to engage in his world. In the particles of time between when I noticed him and when I walked past, I considered how he might scoff, “Help me? How? Walk for me?” So I stayed silent, still, and distant:  safe and un-risked.

Maybe this college student didn’t need to have help; maybe he needed to struggle through this on his own, learning about his own depths of strength and perseverance. Maybe he needed to experience some success to galvanize him for more difficult trials to come. But I still regret not simply stopping right there in that rain misting down on our hair and declaring, “Hey, I’m Allison. Could I give you a hand?” If he had declined the offer, I would have looked right into his dark eyes and smiled and wished  him a good day. I know now exactly how I would have handled that moment.

I have other regrets, too. I yelled “shut up” to an old Hungarian man while on a train in Budapest; he wouldn’t stop explaining why he had to take my seat to escape the sick person in his own compartment. As a child, I stole a pack of gum from Piggly Wiggly. But the regret I carried—heavier than my cell physiology textbook—after turning away from that striving, straining young man was one by which I began to measure time.

There was the me of before, and the me of after—one infinitely more willing to risk her comfort than the other. I did not suddenly stumble upon grand moments of heroism after this shift in my heart. Although I might fantasize about rescuing victims of a plane crash or donating an organ to an ill child, I’ve learned compassion gets lived out in the prosaic little nuggets of daily life.

Weeks after 9/11, I sat in a café journaling and praying and eating a salad. I called it my date with God. Getting ready to leave, I noticed a father with a teenage daughter and young son sitting not far from me. The little boy sat quietly, mostly ignoring his food. The dad, though, was anything but quiet. “Eat your food,” he kept prompting. “You’re wasting my money! Put it in your mouth and chew!” The boy made feeble attempts to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the father wasn’t satisfied. I then noticed the man would pinch his son on the arm or in the side, punctuating each command to eat with a twist of the boy’s flesh. I heard the child’s weak “ow” several times, and then—my heart threatening to pound right out of my gray button down shirt—I walked over to their table. I quietly told the father I had heard how he’d spoken to his son and what he’d done to punish the boy.

The father answered that I couldn’t understand how much trouble they’d had with this child. I didn’t respond but instead leaned across the dad and patted his little boy on the back. I said, “I hope I have a little boy like you one day.” I smiled at him and then turned around. The father called out, “Do you even have children?” I shook my head and kept walking, saving my tears until I got to my car.

I now have two boys of my own. I hope that my sons will learn that doing love is worth the messiness and risk and inconvenience long before they develop any compassion regret of their own.

camellia

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