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Are you brave enough for Radical Compassion? Am I?

Today I went downtown to run some errands and go to an appointment. I had about 45 minutes before this interview, and thought I should have a bite of lunch. There is a nice McDonalds that I pulled in to, (yes, I know, sometimes nothing else will do…) in a mixed bag area of trendy shabby chic and a little rougher element. I thought I would have a quick sandwich, some fries, strictly off the menu most of the time, and a diet soda which I allow myself about once a decade. Then I would check my email and read an article about meditation that I had received earlier in the day.

There was a comfortable bustle of children, the sweet lilt of Spanish language, and generally interesting people. And then…came the man. He was a large fellow, and spoke to everyone in a loud voice. He bought an ice-cream cone, filled his bottles with water and sank down at the table next to me. He appeared tired and overheated, it was a terrifically hot day today, and Macs was nice and cool.

This man seized upon any moment to start conversation with me in an overbearing and intrusive way, though I tried to make it clear that I was involved with something else. He talked volubly about the children around us, his water bottles, the heat, his ice cream, whatever came to him. Then he would nod off a little bit, and I realized that he was probably homeless.

Those who live on the streets are often exhausted because sleeping, in or out of a shelter, can be dangerous and disrupted. When he started asking about my grandchildren I figured it was time to grab what remained of the fries and diet Dr. Pepper, head to my hotbox of a car, and flee.

About half-way to my car I started to feel kind of ashamed. I follow a spiritual discipline that emphasizes compassion, kindness, and service. I thought, I could have just leaned over and said, “what is your story? Why are you here? Can I help you?” I could see that he was simply lonely, and so, so tired. He wanted engagement with another living being who would pay attention to him, that cared about what was going on in his life. I did not do that. I could have turned around and gone back, sat down and talked to him. I did not do that either. I had time, I could have done it. I did not.

Darling Mother Theresa said,

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

I don’t have any starry-eyed romantic notions about leading some poor soul to the light. People don’t engage people with unusual behaviors or looks because we’re actually afraid of them. Afraid they might reach out and try to grab us, be so needy that we can’t shake them off. But sometimes a small conversation, a touch of the hand, authentic eye to eye contact could save a life, or at least help them through another 24 hours. We might have some gifts to bless with, and offer that blessing either silently or aloud. I could have given him money, time, the half box of french fries that I didn’t need. I did not do that, and I’m sorry. I drove away with tears in my eyes, and asked the soul of that man for forgiveness, and thanked him for the powerful teaching that he provided me. Perhaps that’s why we were brought together.

My spiritual teacher, Master Zhi Gang Sha, tells a story about a woman from Australia that was traveling in India. She comes upon a man by the side of the road who has one leg, fishes a hundred dollar bill out of her pack and gives it to him. Her companion says, “really? A hundred dollars?” She shrugs and tells him, “It’s what I’ve got.” They travel on a bit and come upon a man by the side of the road who is missing both legs. Again, she brings out a hundred dollar bill and gives it to him. On they go. The companion gets to thinking, two men alone, by the side of the road with no one near, and missing legs? He speaks this thought to the woman and suddenly the great Compassion Buddha, Guan YIn, appears on the road, smiling. She makes it clear that it was she masquerading as the two men to test her resolve to be compassionate. I wonder who it was that I encountered today? I don’t think it was a random homeless person, I think it was a holy being, an angel, maybe even Guan Yin herself. I failed the test. Clearly I am not walking the walk. But I did get the lesson, and I will do everything I can to not make that mistake again. To reach out in love and radical compassion, to touch, to meet eyes, to bless.

True compassion might seem like a soft thing, and it can be. But it can also be fierce, immediate, and require great courage to offer. Am I brave enough for radical compassion? We’ll see. I will try. I will do my best. Thank you Guan Yin, for your powerful visit.

Kristin Strachan

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