The Morning: SoMa, San Francisco
I barely noticed him in my periphery standing at an ATM machine. It was nearing 7am and in my sleepiness I assumed he was getting finances in order before showing up to work a bit earlier than his tech-employed coworkers. I hastened my steps to appease my addiction to caffeine, which I fix daily at a Philz Coffee near Giants stadium.
The streets were surprisingly quiet this morning. On most days there are construction crews already jackhammering slabs of street into rubble and tractors beeping in perpetual reverse. But this morning was different, and I was enjoying the city in an uncharacteristically quiet state when the man from the ATM shouted from just a few feet behind me.
The words were jumbled, but the sound startled me so much that I cursed under my breath. Why the hell is he yelling right now? I looked around and saw no one, but didn’t look back toward him. The city has a way of conditioning you to mind your own business.
He began speaking loudly in a conversational way, then began answering his own questions, which devolved into a crude monologue referencing the female anatomy and an incomprehensible social commentary on why women aren’t fit to have jobs.
At this point, I clearly realized that he was not mentally well and shifted from disdain for him to feeling sadness for the hopeless life he must lead on the streets.
But also, shameful as it is to share, I found myself so disgusted by his words that I wanted nothing to do with him. I often feel this loaded apathy when it comes to homeless people.
The Evening: Stanford University
A group of about thirty people, ages ranging from early 20s to late 60s, were sitting in a circle on the fourth floor of Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Learning and Knowledge Center. Outside, the rolling green hills were being turned to gold with sunset. Every Thursday we gather here to learn how to grow in compassion within Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training program.
Our instructor had already written some notes in black ink on the shiny white board mounted on the wall:
“Recognize interconnectedness, sameness, and common humanity with others.”
I thought about the guy on the street and realized how far removed I felt from him. In my mind, he was a nuisance, an obstruction on the sidewalk, a disruption to an otherwise peaceful morning. My judgements kept me from caring for him as I'd care for myself.
It turns out that I am not alone in thinking this way.
Social psychologist and professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Susan Fiske, conducted a study on the building blocks of empathy and how our brains react when we are objectifying, stereotyping, and/or dehumanizing others.
In her study (which I won’t go into detail explaining here, but which you can see for yourself here), she found that, with her test subjects, the part of the brain that was activated when shown an image of a homeless person was the same that lit up when shown an image of poop. Their reactions to both were registered by the brain as disgusting.
Learning that we have been conditioned at a neurological level to place certain types of people in sub-human mental categories is astonishing to me. The bright side, however, is our ability to rise above these reflexive prejudices to recondition ourselves to extend compassion to those who are not like us, even developing a physiological reaction to them that is reminiscent of our responses to those whom we love and care for deeply.
Speaking of which, let me share one more story...
Another Evening: the night she was late
The sun had set and my partner was running later than expected. I began to worry about her safety, as I knew she’d have to walk home through darkened city streets alone. She wasn’t replying to my text messages and I wasn’t even sure where to look for her…if it came to that.
Eventually, she walked in and I met her with questioning eyes. Hers looked back at me with sadness.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She told me she was late because she’d purchased some food for a homeless guy and then got to talking with him for a bit.
Again, I felt that familiar conflict, but it was now projected onto her – while I admired her altruism, I feared for her safety. What's the appropriate way to act in these scenarios?
“You can’t be naive,” I chided. “Please be smart about these things.”
She assured me that she was in a well-lit public space and that she couldn’t just walk past this guy.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he could’ve been you,” she said. “He was about the same age,” she told me, “and in another life that could've be you in his spot.”
I knew she was right, and I loved her for it. But, as is often the case with love, I felt a strong urge to go into protection mode. I wanted to be sure that my best interests, which involved her safety, were being put first.
But, I’m learning again and again, acting with compassion is rarely convenient or comfortable.
Everyone wants to be happy, free of suffering, loved, and living with purpose
There is a great sense of strength, unity, and support that comes from being with others who are like us in some way or another. We can use this group empowerment to accomplish great good in the world, or to perpetuate great harm. And we do both.
But something to keep in mind, as we strive to be more compassionate, and inevitably more human, is that everyone wants to be happy, free of suffering, loved, and living a life of purpose. And though assuming can be a dangerous thing most of the time, you can actually assume these things about people and it’ll be for the better.
Thoughts from my patron saint
"When someone has a vice, we should try to bombard them with rays of love and compassion so that they may be cured and freed." - St. Porphyrios