WHAT MAKES A COMPASSIONATE CITY?
by Natalie Harris
True compassion is not an emotion or way of feeling. Rather it is a way of being toward others that involves two steps; first, listening to the needs and interests of others from where they live and second, responding to those needs and desires through that understanding. The Golden Rule teaches us that “we should treat others as we would have them treat us,” but compassion teaches us that we should treat others as they would want to be treated. Compassion then requires “stepping into another’s shoes” and listening to their needs and desires not from our own life experiences but from theirs. This makes compassion very difficult in our present culture and time where the experiences can be so different that we struggle to even believe that others live the experiences they do.
Our lives today are segregated by physical distances as well as technology that allows us to separate ourselves and only hear and see others who live and think like us. I know many people struggling with addiction, poverty and depression, but my neighborhood is far from those of other cultures, incomes and opportunities. And, when I travel through other communities, I am often walled off in my air-conditioned car with the radio playing.
There are people working to use the same technology that divides us to bring people together and listen to new voices, but I find the best way to improve my compassion, is to meet new neighbors and travel to neighborhoods that are outside of my usual experience. I need to hear what their lives are like. What they like and find frustrating about living in the same city as I and what solutions they see improving our community. My compassionate response may be as simple as listening as holding someone who is in sorrow, but at other times, it requires me to stand up and march for the wrongs of my community and the disparity between those who have much and those who have very little.
Only in knowing and listening to others am I able to move from pity and charity to compassion and community building. A healthy city where people are working toward compassion would involve many people listening to new stories. It would lead to the breaking down of segregated communities and lead to opportunities where we gather and share ideas. It would become a place where we do not just worry about how our own children and grandchildren are raised but take responsibility to see that all the children growing up in our city have support and opportunity and guidance. And, finally, compassion makes us all feel like neighbors who give back and forth, not do gooders helping the poor and helpless or finger-pointers placing blame on others for the ills of our society.
The struggle for compassion is not new, but it is as important as it has ever been and there is no better time to act, than now. It is a worthy challenge for us all.
~Natalie Harris — Coalition for the Homeless
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