Taking a risk on compassion

I want to tell you about a time I was robbed.

Just about a year ago now, a man approached me in broad daylight outside my apartment. He told me a story about his daughter boarding a flight that morning and accidentally leaving with his wallet. He no longer had money to buy the gas he needed to get home. After soaking in a few more details, including his career as an offensive lineman for the Badgers, I agreed to loan him some money.

Within about an hour, it became pretty clear to me that I had been duped. I was incredibly embarrassed and didn’t tell anyone. It made me really mad for months as I replayed the moment in my head. It still angers me today.

The story isn’t even close to believable thinking about it now, but in the moment, I had a choice to make: take a risk on compassion or ignore a man who may possibly actually be in need.

I’ll admit, I’ve been less compassionate to strangers since that day. And for more than stealing my money, I resent the man for that.

It’s true that there are people out there scamming compassionate people. But there is a growing stigma in society that has forced people to shut off all compassion to anyone who asks for help. Compassion has grown absent, replaced by an attitude that assumes all those who ask for help are greedy and manipulative freeloaders.

A television network host recently dressed himself as a homeless person and begged for money on the streets of New York City. He received a lot of generosity from people. His message was to abandon your trust in beggars on the street. The larger attitude he preached was to not trust those who ask for help. “Most people” begging on the streets are fakes, he said. It is a dangerous thought to put in the heads of a society already losing their ability to grasp compassion.

Here’s the problem with that attitude:

When we begin to tell ourselves that most who ask for help are lazy freeloaders, we close ourselves off from those who actually are in need.

Are imposter beggars and those who take advantage of the system bad people? Yes.

But who are we when we then ignore all those actually in need as well simply because a few are manipulating our emotions? Surely we too have committed a serious moral crime.

I remember a Bible story from when I was young. Christ angered the people in his village because he had dinner with the worst of the worst in society. But his message was that those people were just as in need of our help and compassion. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

The woman who asks for your money only to buy alcohol: Why do we fail to show compassion for her addiction? The guy who robbed me: Why does our compassion fail for this man who obviously has lost his understanding for morals and his own compassion for others?

Are these people not just as in need?

I’ve developed two points now, and here they are:

1) We are just as wrong to ignore all people because a few are manipulators, as those who attempt to manipulate us. When we choose to ignore all, we also choose to ignore those actually in need.

2) And those who do manipulate us, those who take advantage of our sympathy: They too deserve a piece of our compassion as well. Those were the beliefs that I was raised on.

To show true compassion is to find sympathy for all in need. Whatever their needs may be.

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