Choosing Compassion In a Culture of Fear

A couple years ago, as I was loading Sophie into the van after a morning of half-day kindergarten, two men approached me. Their car had run out of gas on 27 and they wondered if I would give them a ride to a gas station.

I believe most people are good and kind. I give the benefit of the doubt. I listen to the stories about no change for bus fare home, and I dig into my purse and hand over the quarters. Sometimes, sure, I find the same woman standing at the same corner telling the same story—and still collecting quarters—two hours later. But sometimes I watch the too-thin young man devour the burger I bought for him at the Newport Wendy’s and, without thinking too much about the particulars of his situation, I buy him two more.

The out-of-gas scenario, though, gave me pause. They seemed legit. They had approached me in full daylight in a parking lot adjacent to the school. They acknowledged my wariness. They echoed the beliefs of many: One can’t be too careful these days.

But can you?

I had a choice, and I chose to believe them, to believe in us. All of us. We say we can’t help out strangers for fear that something bad will happen. And sometimes, it does. But how often? The news stories exist because the instances are rare. People cry out, But your children! My children are much more in danger of being physically hurt in a car accident every time I put them in a vehicle than they are of some unknown thing happening to them because I chose to help a stranger. There was a lesson for my children to be learned at that moment, and I wanted them to learn the right one.

I drove the men to a gas station. The gas station had gas, but no containers. Another man overheard the situation and offered to drive to his house, just around the corner, and bring back his own container for the men to use. We waited. He came back, the men got their gas and I drove them back to their car, which was, indeed, sitting on the side of 27, empty.

Sometimes I think back on that afternoon with conviction: I did the right thing. Other times, my anxiety swells. What was I thinking? When retelling the story, there’s a similar consensus: What were you thinking?

Being human is so hard.

Thankfully this scenario hasn’t repeated itself and I don’t make it a habit to pick up hitchhikers. The last time we picked up someone Andy was with me. An older woman was walking up the side of (again) 27, in intense heat, arms heavy with groceries. Turns out she and her daughter had gotten in a fight and her daughter had kicked her out of the car. I had (and have) no anxiety about this. But why? Because she was a woman? Because my husband was with me?

Choosing to believe in the good of others doesn’t always work out in my favor. We once paid a contractor $800 for materials before he started the work. He was just getting back into the business, it was around the holidays and he had two small children. He didn’t have a cushy business account to cover the materials prior to the work. So we paid him. We never saw the materials. Or him. We took it to small claims court, won a judgement, but he never paid. His bank account was empty. The last we heard, he was in jail.

Another time I let a young woman into our house on an awfully hot August day. Her story: She was selling magazine subscriptions in order to earn money for college. When it was all said and done I had paid $40 for a subscription to Vogue. I later looked up the company she was working for and realized the whole thing was a scam. For this, I was lucky: I was able to cancel my subscription and get my money back. (And Andy gently approached me with the idea of establishing a house rule of not engaging with door-to-door solicitors, children excluded.)

So sure. Not everyone is good all the time. But if we choose to live in a culture of fear, we choose to miss out on the connections we can make with other humans outside of our circles.

The year I turned 30 I travelled to Spain and Morocco with my friends, Aimee and Shruti. While in Fez, a woman started following us—and eventually, talked to us. Nabila spoke Arabic and French, and was learning English. She was so happy to have the opportunity to try her English out. She invited us to her home for hot tea.

We had a choice. On one hand, we were three young, American women, traveling without a male companion (something that deeply troubled our riad’s owners). On the other hand, we had the opportunity to be fully immersed into this woman’s life. The next thing I remember is being linked arm in arm with Nabila, walking and listening while she chatted away, asking so many questions, while her mother (we think) followed behind. I remembered reading in my Lonely Planet Morocco book to consider yourself lucky if you’re invited into someone’s home. We felt lucky, yes, but also a bit nervous.

Turns out she lived with only her sisters. Right or wrong, upon knowing that, we felt safe.

We were served hot mint tea and cookies. She and her sisters took so many pictures of us and we of all of them. We taught her a few English phrases (although she knew so much) and she taught us Arabic (by the way, “sahabat” means “friends”). We exchanged addresses. And as we left Nabila’s apartment she and her sisters watched us walk down the darkened street, waving, waving. Lucky, indeed.

It’s when we let go of fear that the magic can happen.

A couple years ago I stopped by the gas station next to my house to pick up some beer. I was en route to visit my friend Angel. It was spring—maybe early summer—and a sudden pop-up storm hit. I saw a man run into the gas station, having ridden there on his bicycle. While we were checking out, I commented on the rain. “I’m in a van,” I said. “Happy to give you a ride.”

He accepted.

I rearranged some car seats and we loaded his bike. He lived close—just up on North Fort Thomas Ave. He said his name was Joe. He asked me about my family, and I asked him about his. He was a father of three, just like me, but older. He talked about parenting. I was struggling as a parent that day. Somehow, he knew. Or maybe, he didn’t. But he had a way of talking about enjoying the moment and discussing the clichéd “they grow up so fast” in such a way that I didn’t feel the need to punch him. His story was joyful and terribly sad (unimaginable tragedy), and his words were exactly what I needed to hear at that time.

“Stop here,” he said.

“Here?” I asked.

We weren’t by a house, or an apartment complex. Instead, we were in front of a church.

“Yes,” he said. “Here is fine.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He insisted.

The rain was blinding. He got out, I popped open the trunk, and he pulled out his bike. I took a couple seconds to look ahead of me, and then I looked back. He was gone. It was so hard to see in the rain, yes, but everywhere I looked—no sign of him. He was just gone.

Two minutes later the rain stopped and a huge rainbow appeared.

For those of you who are religious, my God, I know. First of all, his name had deep significance to me. Then there was the blinding rain, the immensely personal parenting story, the words of wisdom I needed to hear, the church, the disappearance, the rainbow.

Honestly? I (mostly) think it was all a beautiful coincidence. Life—living—provided me with a gift in return for simply making a human connection. And yes, it can be scary—especially when two men approach you, asking for a ride. But in a world where polarization runs deep, I believe human connection is vital to noticing and acknowledging the beauty in life that is different from, outside of, our own.

It’s the age-old tale of giving in order to receive. The trouble is knowing when to do so. The trouble is being smart while also being kind. The trouble is knowing when to say yes, and when to say no. The trouble is choosing compassion in a culture of fear.

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
—Albert Einstein