Monday, June 25, 2007


During our routines, it is so easy to act in a way that ignores the feelings of the people around us.  This is a crime with which I am intimately familiar.  In order to remind myself that I am not, in fact, the center of the universe I printed out the definition of compassion and tacked it over my desk.  From Princeton:

compassion: a deep awareness of and sympathy for another's suffering

Something happened today that really bothered me.  I rode my bicycle home from the office, and it was hot.  There were three cars on the side of the highway on the way.  The first was helped off the road by another motorist.  As he drove away, she was dictating directions into her phone.  No worries there.  The third car was on the opposite side of the divided highway, and was being helped by three other cars.  The second was on my side though, and I stopped to see if I could help.

At first I thought the car had a flat tire, but it soon became clear that there was something else wrong.  The driver was probably about 65.  He wore a ball cap, used a hearing aid, and had a complete set of tools in his car.  In fact, he had on leather work gloves.  As I inquired about the state of his vehicle, he explained that it had started shaking violently as he drove down the highway.  He was trying to determine why.

The gentleman was very proud of his car-an old Ford Escort (or similar car) with a diesel engine that he claimed got 50 miles per gallon.  He went on to explain that it had 1/4 of a million miles on it.  I believe him.  Unfortunately I couldn't help.  This was more than a tire change, he already had a phone, and since I was on my bicycle I could hardly give him a ride.

When I asked if he had a phone, he said he did and he could call 911 if he had an emergency.  His intention was to try to return to Lansing to further diagnose his car.  I wished him luck and took my leave.

Riding away I realized something shameful.  There was not much I could do to help him, but I didn't even get his name.  Is it possible to have a deep awareness of, and sympathy for another person if you do not even take the time to get their name?  It was then that I realized how out of touch my perspective is.

My wife and I have our own "tribulations", but they are completely different than the trials of this man.  We have a supportive marriage, a wonderful daughter, and everything else we need to maintain our relatively modest lifestyle.  We drive two cars, we both go to school, and only one of us works.  We cannot imagine being unable to call a tow truck for a short tow.  We do not know what it is like to drive a car 250,000 miles.  Any time we have a problem we can find someone to help.  911 is the last number we would ever call.  Given the above information I have come to a sad conclusion.

I am incapable of feeling compassion for this man.  Not because I do not want to, but because I cannot have a sympathy for his suffering because I am so far removed from it.  My perspective is so different that I am unable to fathom his situation.  And I couldn't even show the curtsey of asking his name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In so much as you didn't actually 'accomplish' anything that you're aware of - I'll bet your stopping was a relief none-the-less.

You might be surprised how just such a simple act might have cleared the air for the gentleman - allowing him to think and take action.