Our response to suffering speaks volumes about our interior state.
It reveals how we see others, ourselves; the needs of others, compared to our own desires.
Here I wish to reference a difficult experience I had after a shift at work which lasted into the night.
Tired, I walked over to a bus shelter and noticed a man sitting in an awkward position on a bench across the street. After watching for a little while it was easy to see that he was unconscious.
What happened next shook me deeply: it both showed how callous we can be towards our brothers and sisters, but also revealed my own coldness towards their suffering.
First, I noticed how a group of people standing nearby totally ignored his presence.
Second, a couple walked up and sat beside him; the woman proceeded to rifle through his pockets and remove their contents.
Afterward, they left.
Third. When I asked if the group nearby knew him, two women came over. One said, “Hey that looks like Rick, is that Rick?” By this point the man had fallen from the bench onto the ground. She kicked him over so his face was upwards; it wasn’t Rick.
They left laughing.
Fourth. A woman stopped by when she saw me stooped by his side and asked, “Is he ok?” I replied I didn’t know, I didn’t think so.” So she said, “I think he’s just resting!” with a hint of positivity. I just shook my head, disgruntled, “I think it’s worse than that.”
Fifth. A man with a bicycle stopped now and asked if he could help. He proceeded to hit the man with his bike tire repeatedly in attempts to awake him. He then force fed him some liquids and placed the limp man in a terrible position on the bench. When he heard police sirens nearby, he suddenly fled.
Sixth, seemingly the only beautiful witness was a teenager who stopped by and asked with a look of concern if everything was Ok. When I told him I’d already called an ambulance he smiled apologetically and left.
Seventh. The woman who robbed the unconscious man returned. She sat around asking me for a smoke, or if I had a light while I was trying to talk with the paramedics on the phone.
The ambulance arrived in good time and they told my help was no longer needed, so I left.
Upon reflecting on this incident later I realised that each person who stopped by represented a different internal state, most of which I have held myself at one time or another in my life.
The first people who just ignored him represented those with hearts which have never been lit aflame with sacrificial love. They saw no personal gain, and only annoyance in going to help the man. He was simply not worth their time.
Admittedly, this was my first reaction.
Love which cannot sacrifice, is not love at all.
The woman who robbed him represents all the times that we take advantage of those we love when they are vulnerable.
Whether we use subtle social pressure to get our own way, or by taking from the other intimacy that was never given. We have all, at one time or another, used the predicament of another person for our own selfish gain.
The fourth woman who stopped to offer the suggestion that, “Maybe he’s just sleeping!” represents our tendency to gloss over real suffering with happy-go-lucky slogans and meaningless cheer.
Every time we shrug off the very real suffering of another with pseudo-positivity, we offer them a cold shoulder as relief from their pain.
Pop psychologists love this kind of advice. They tell us that to improve our lives and eradicate our struggles we need only think happy thoughts or eat more green things!
The kind of love that lifts the burden of the other involves lifting a heavy, cumbersome, and precious cross.
It involves most importantly, entering into the pain of the other.
The man on the bicycle represents a curious middle ground. He was totally willing to help, but having no expertise about how exactly to help, did what was eventually totally unhelpful. His intention was there, but his lack of expertise and knowledge only served to worsen the situation. It is safe to say that spending time discerning whether our interventions are really helping a given situation would be fruitful time to spend indeed!
Knowing when we have the capacity to make a difference, and when our inexperience will lead the situation into an even greater problem than the first, is true wisdom.
I left that night on my bus, significantly later and more tired then I had expected, and thought about what had just happened. I was one step away from simply ignoring the situation and leaving without a second thought. When I witnessed my own reluctance to help the helpless, it shocked me most of all.
It motivated a serious reflection:
Where is my compassion?: I who claim to be a Catholic, devoted to Love itself.
Why was I so eager to leave this man to his lot in life? To be the unconcerned passerby in the story of the Good Samaritan?
As a Catholic I also identify with the fact that the risen Christ is present in every human being: to abandon any man or woman is to abandon Christ himself.
If I claim to care about humanity, while ignoring the very real suffering of those I know, see, and encounter, I am a liar, a hypocrite.
There should be no suffering in this world so foreign to me that I will be unwilling to at least acknowledge the struggle and the pain, to offer my presence and self-less gift.
May God kindle and fan the flames within our hearts to burn with compassion for all our brothers and sisters.