Practical Compassion

An occasional “feel-good” story can go considerable distance toward restoring one’s faith in humanity, if only briefly. One I read about a day or two ago helped reduce the span between despair and hope. I don’t recall all the details, only that a single working mother whose child suffers from autism (along with other maladies, I think) received a note in her mailbox. The note chastised her for allowing the exterior of her house to look shoddy; the yard was unkempt, it seems, and other evidence pointed to neglect. The writer urged her to “do better” so her house would not reduce the value of other homes in the neighborhood. The woman posted a copy of the note to Facebook; it went viral. Soon, an army of volunteers showed up at her house to do yard work, painting, etc., etc.  End of story. Goodness prevails.

But, as is usually the case with me, that’s not the end of the story. I was curious about the untold story. (I still am, inasmuch as I’ve learned nothing else about the situation.) While I was heartened that strangers jumped in to help a person obviously in need, I wondered about details the story did not reveal. Did this woman’s house become neglected because she had to choose between caring for her child and caring for the house? After the clean-up, does the woman (or the volunteers…or anyone) have a plan to ensure that the house and yard are maintained? I wanted to know that, somehow, the cycle of demands on the woman’s time and/or the limited resources that might have led to the problem had been addressed. I was happy about the altruism of strangers, of course, and I felt a knot in my throat as I considered how compassionate those people were. But was that overwhelming urge to help just a band-aid over a severed artery? I don’t know. Perhaps the matter was resolved and everyone will live happily ever after. Or perhaps not.

I remember when the December 26, 2004 tsunami killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. News of the event sickened me. I felt helpless to do anything but give money. Fortunately for me at the time, my small company was doing reasonably well and I was able to make a $1,000 donation toward the recovery. I think I gave the money to the Red Cross, stipulating that it was for tsunami relief. And thus my sense of needing to help was addressed. Not long after I wrote the check, though, I wondered what would happen to the affected people after the initial recovery needs had been met? Would resources be available and would they be used to create protective barriers? Would tsunami warning systems be installed or upgraded so people would have more time to flee when the next event occurred? On the one hand, I was glad I was in a position to make what was, to me, a significant contribution toward recovery. On the other, though, I wondered whether the donation was just a band-aid, soluble in the next wave of sea water.

Doing good, or learning that others are doing good, in service to others in need is uplifting. Sure, acts of helping are valuable to the  helped, but they are salve to the broken hearts of those doing the helping. Reactive help in the moment, though, usually is just a temporary respite from the pain, not a permanent analgesic. We need both.

I wonder how we, collectively, can respond with empathy and compassion tempered with hard-headed practicality? How can we rush to help people who need it, but in that rush insist that short-term help MUST lead to long-term solutions? I’m just thinking with my fingers here, but I have an idea: with respect to cash contributions, we could stipulate that three quarters of the money go toward immediate needs and one quarter be invested in long-term solutions surrounding the problem. For example, $100 in tornado relief might be divided into $75 for immediate aid and $25 invested in research into and/or production of building products that can withstand tornadic winds. Maybe non-cash contributions, i.e., helping hands, could be handled the same way; show up and commit to X hours of work. You’d actually work for X * .75 hours; the remaining X * .25 hours would be “banked” for follow-up work to find permanent solutions. It’s cumbersome and probably too bureaucratic and complex, but I think it’s worth thinking about. At least it might get the process of assessing the issue on track.

The obvious solution to all “people problems” would be for all people to be empathetic, compassionate, reliable, dependable, loving, kind, practical, sensitive, forgiving, caring, nurturing, helpful, social, supportive, and otherwise possessive of all the traits of damn fine humans.  Easy fix.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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