Urban Compassion: The Real Test

April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

After weeks of heavy rains and freezing winds that’d give Chicago or New York a run for their money, spring has finally descended over San Francisco. It’s a welcome relief for someone like me who will rarely step outside in anything under 50 degrees (yes, I’m a wimp). While my initial sense of awe at the splendor of my surroundings has dissipated some, my gratitude for the welcoming beauty and kindness of the city has yet to fade. But the cold weather has also focused my attention on a more sobering aspect of urban life.

It’s something I see every day, whether strolling through the park or jogging down sunny tree-lined streets. No matter how fast I walk from the BART stop to my office, or what main streets I avoid, it’s painfully visible: people everywhere are living on the streets. Packing everything they own into shopping carts and sleeping on dirty blankets. Huddling on doorsteps, braced against the wind whipping through the streets in the wee hours of the morning. Hungry, tired beyond tired, and alone.

It sends a pang through my chest to see the exhaustion and pain in their faces. It makes me even sadder to think that each person I see on the streets has a story of how they got there: a story of how things were good once, then just okay, and then quickly devolved into something over which they had no control. But most of all it bewilders me that such obvious suffering can exist so openly in one of America’s finest (and wealthiest) cities. Why, I wonder, is this still an issue?

***

One of the things I love about the Bay Area is the popular interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. I fit the image pretty squarely myself, frequenting yoga classes and lectures on engaged Buddhism. I also attend a weekly meditation group at the San Francisco Zen Center called Young Urban Zen. YUZ meetings are hosted in a beautiful meditation hall, embellished by hardwood floors, plush pillows and bright, warm yellow lights. I go to support my practice, but also to foster connections with people who are a lot like me: socially conscious, politically aware, concerned about the world and hoping to change it. After our discussions I always leave inspired to be a better, more compassionate person. A bodhisattva of sorts.

But somewhere along the ten-block stretch between the Zen Center and Van Ness station, my sharp enthusiasm begins to blur. Poorly lit streets only half-mask the handful of people, moving slowly in the shadows, who are without homes and apparently not in the best of mental health. And it could just be the darkness, and it could just be the cold, but I get pretty darn scared. My skin tingles. My breath quickens. I stare straight ahead, pull my jacket closer around me and walk in huge semicircles to avoid them. ‘I don’t want to ignore you,’ I think. ‘But I have to be safe.’

***

The moment always strikes me as a revealing sketch of my character. I imagine viewing the scene from above, and wonder, am I fooling myself? Are the stereotypes I grew up with (that homeless people are either crazy, addicted, or otherwise dangerous) really true, or is it an excuse I use to avoid a practical test of my ideals? These first uncomfortable thoughts spiral me into a muddled philosophical argument with myself: even if I were to stop and give them something, would it solve anything? And if I do give money, how much is enough?

I’m not a utilitarian, or even necessarily a perfect altruist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot to learn about selflessness. I’ve noticed, for one, that my ruminations are merely threads in a complex tapestry of rationalizations and fears I’ve been weaving since day one: ‘I don’t have any money, and I can’t exactly give him my credit card… next time’. ‘I have 5 bucks but I was saving it for an Odwalla smoothie… I just can’t do it today.’ Or on the other side: ‘I only gave her two dollars. Two dollars?!? I really could have given more… if only I wasn’t so stingy.’ The storm cloud collision of fear and guilt often forestalls me from making a move, even if compassion impels me to.

Of course, there are some safety measures I have to abide by as a young woman living on my own in a huge city. If I’m walking home at 1:30 a.m. I don’t stop for anybody. As much as I might like to think so, all my ‘warrior’ poses couldn’t save me in the midst of an alleyway confrontation with the wrong person. But there’s a huge difference between those ‘survival mode’ situations and the countless others where I brush past someone who needs help, thinking only about my iPhone or how I need to get somewhere or that the homeless shelter is five blocks down so what the heck is he sitting out here for. In those situations, I really don’t have an excuse. So I’m stuck wondering how to break my pattern of letting fear guide my actions, instead of generosity.

***

Inner struggles aside, it’s pretty clear that we live in a brave new world. The trickle-down theory days are over; trust in the benevolence of the system has disintegrated to the point of laughability. 23% of kids in the country now live in poverty (the number is well above 30% for both Hispanics and Blacks). It’s unacceptable, but as a generation we feel pretty powerless to change it.

At the same time, the reign of the top-down moral code based on Judeo-Christian values is dwindling, replaced by a youth culture that largely considers itself ‘humanist’. Trust me, I’m a fan. But I’ve often wondered what humanism means, especially in the context of an urban environment where we are confronted every day by an overwhelming dose of humanness in all its forms. Even just being surrounded by so many bodies is sometimes enough to make my head spin… add in the effort it takes to check my presumptions, listen patiently to other points of view, speak in perpetually politically correct terms, and I’d just as soon collapse into my bed and watch Netflix for a week to recover. Or more likely, drop in on a restorative yoga class, when I can afford it.

***

The heart of the matter is, I think, a question of how to drive right action in the midst of confusion. It’s the same issue San Francisco is grappling with on a massive scale: newspapers and magazines spill out articles daily on the effects of gentrification on the city, with glittering proposals from wealthy developers met by scathing indictments from dozens of community organizations. It’s a kind of war, and Valencia and Mission streets face each other like concrete trenches.

As much as I may want to remain neutral, the fact that I live smack in the middle of the conflict means I have a role to play, for better or for worse. And while I’m hesitant to consider myself one of ‘the gentry’, the reality is that my background and education grant me a lot more privilege than most people here have. I could pass it off as not my battle, just like I could pass by every person who asks me for money or food tomorrow. But that’s really a cop-out. I still love it here. I still want to call it home. So I’m starting to think about what taking on that title means.

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