Several years ago, I was out walking my son in his stroller (he was somewhere around six months old) when a homeless woman approached me asking for money. I'd seen her before in the neighborhood many times, including behind our condominium using drugs. So I turned down her request and continued walking as if the wind had blown a newspaper against my leg and I'd kicked it away without any thought.
I used to get angry at strangers who asked me for money, projecting onto to them a rage I actually felt toward myself for having such a difficult time turning them down. Then I learned to set boundaries comfortably and my anger gave way to inconsistency: I'd sometimes acquiesce to requests for money and sometimes not, the likelihood of one or the other depending randomly on my mood, how much I believed their story or how much it entertained me, or my belief about what it meant to be compassionate at the time.
Given that at least one study (done in Munich, Germany) has suggested as many as 95% of homeless men suffer from some type of mental disorder (substance abuse being the most common by far) and that numerous other studies have shown similar, though often far less dramatic, results depending on study methodology and the city studied, my standard response now is to refuse all requests for money, believing as I now do that money is not the best long-term, or even short-term, solution to help the homeless. Yet each time I'm asked, I wonder again about what it means to be compassionate, and my recent encounter with our neighborhood homeless woman caused me to reflect again how I continue to fail to live up to my aspiration to consistently manifest the compassion of which I'm capable.
Compassion, in my view, is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires both. Empathy involves responding to another person's emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy entails feeling regret for another person's suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person's happiness as if it were your own. The challenge with this definition, however, is how easily it causes us to mistakenly infer that compassion therefore means:
If compassion is none of those things, though, then what is it? I would argue the following:
In the Lotus Sutra (the highest teaching of the original Buddha, Shakyamuni), luminous beings known as the Bodhisattvas of the Earth make a great vow to help all people attain enlightenment. In Nichiren Buddhism, a bodhisattva is anyone who manifests the life-condition of compassion.
This, then, is the ultimate goal to which I aspire: to expand my capacity for compassion and become a bodhisattva. The reason is simple: the feeling of genuine compassion for another person is, in my view, one of the most joyful experiences available to human beings. Further, only in the life state of the bodhisattva does it become clear how making the happiness of others the ultimate goal of one's life entails no personal sacrifice at all. Finally, I don't believe that indestructible happiness is possible to attain in isolation. How can anyone be truly happy while everyone—or anyone—else around them continues to suffer?
One other random fact: compassion cures all social awkwardness. It's hard to feel awkward in a room full of strangers whom you genuinely want to be as happy as possible. But to establish a life-condition in which you actually feel that way—ah, there's the rub.
So compassion remains my goal, but one I'm able to reach far less often than I want. When asked for money by strangers, my typical response is a rapid-fire, "Don't-have-any-money-on-me-sorry." But this is often not even true. I'm certain the reason I lie ultimately comes down to cowardice, though why I'm afraid to tell them the truth is not yet entirely clear to me.
It's not that I lack compassion for the homeless—just that my compassion for them remains only a feeling, only theoretical. I say this not because I refuse to give them money. As I said before, I don't believe giving them money represents the most compassionate action I could take (though I certainly recognize it may be yours—no judgment intended). I say this because the most compassionate action I could take would be to introduce them to Buddhism, a practice I genuinely believe has the power to help anyone in any circumstance become happy, but I don't do that either.
There are several reasons I don't, all of which I'm sure will sound reasonable: I'm reluctant to proselytize; I don't want to become embroiled in a stranger's life; I don't want to take the time. And I'm sure many would argue I'm expecting more from myself than I should. But I'm not just writing about homelessness here (and I don't pretend to have the answer to that complex and difficult problem). I'm writing about the part of me that believes enlightenment is possible and that an enlightened person would be overflowing with compassion I feel only rarely—a compassion that makes all men feel like brothers and all women like sisters. I'm writing about the part of me that keeps asking if there really is any greater value we can produce as human beings than to help another person to become happier. Because every time I turn down a homeless person's request for money what I think to myself (other than somewhere out there must be someone worried about them) isn't that I should have given them what they wanted, but rather that a Buddha would have given them something they need.
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!