A Compassionate Existence

I work in New York City.  I love my job.  I hate the city.  I hate my commute.  I hate the noise.  I hate the crowds and the smells.  But most of all, I hate the complete disregard for humanity that is so prevalent in NYC.  My office is in a terrible location.  I see homeless people and strung out addicts every day as I walk up 8th Avenue from Penn Station to my office.  Every morning, when I arrive in Penn Station, the policemen are waking up the homeless men and women who have spent the night on the floors and chairs of the NYC transportation hub and sending them on their way, just as the throngs of commuters arrive from Long Island and New Jersey to start another working day.

Maybe I’m more attuned to this now that I have my 8 month old son with me on my commute 3 days a week.  I can’t help wondering how I will explain these things to him when he is old enough to ask.  I do not want my son to be the type of person who can turn a blind eye to the suffering of others and not be affected by it.  It is critically important to me to set an example of compassion and kindness for him.  At the same time, there are obvious safety concerns and limits with respect to helping those who are less fortunate than we are.  How would I respond if he were to ask me why I didn’t help a person in need that we see along our commute?  How would I respond if he didn’t ask?

I was on the subway yesterday with my son when a homeless man asked the dazed Monday morning commuters for a little help.  I watched person after person look the other way.  Here was a man who was clearly mentally challenged, who was obviously homeless with no food or money to speak of.  And every single person on that train just turned away.  I reached into my bag and pulled out an apple to give to him.  He shook his head and opened his mouth, revealing that he had no front teeth to bite into the apple with.  I reached in again and pulled out a cheese stick which I had stashed in my bag to quiet my son along the way if he got cranky (He’ll stop crying immediately if you put cheese in his mouth, and I can’t say I blame him!).  As I handed it to the man, he nodded his head to us and went about his way.  The woman next to me began to criticize him for  not accepting the apple I had offered.  When I told her he had no front teeth, she said that she has a “partial” and she can eat an apple just fine.  I looked at her and smiled, noting that she had a young boy with her, probably about 8 years old.  She mentioned that she used to work at a homeless shelter, and “you’d be surprised” to know that these people all get checks.  I told her that regardless of his life circumstances, the way I see it, he is worse off than I am, and if I can do something to make things a little easier for him, then why not?  I told her that I think it’s important to set an example of compassion for my son and she agreed.  But at the same time, I doubt she would’ve offered the man any food if she had any.

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