Spring break of my senior year of college, three friends and I went on a cruise. After months of saving money, we exploited every luxury. I snapped pictures of nearly every meal–extravagant buffets with mounds of carved fruit, artfully displayed dinners, each day’s menu more exotic than the one before.
On our last day at sea, as we lounged around the indoor hot tubs, one friend asked whether we thought compassion is natural or learned. Whitney, who is going to spend a year with AmeriCorps after we graduate, thinks about the big world and how she can help those in need, and often brings up questions like this one in casual conversation. As I swished my feet around in the bubbling hot water, I thought about how I try to live the Golden Rule in my life. I donate to holiday drives and write checks to support disaster relief, never expecting anything in return; sometimes a sad news report can even make me cry. Yes, I thought, some people are naturally compassionate, and I am one of them. But I bit my tongue and listened to Whitney explain that she thought compassion must be learned.
At the start of our 14-hour drive from the port in Galveston, I sat next to Whitney in the back seat, exhausted and ready to get home. As we approached an underpass, I saw a man holding a cardboard sign by the side of the road. The sign read: “anything is apreciated,” in large, handwritten black letters, the last word glaringly misspelled. I felt sorry for this man in his worn gray sweatshirt, spending his day at this dusty roadside post, but I also suspected that maybe he had spelled the sign wrong to get sympathy, as if he were looking for ways to trick us out of our spare change. I was about to point out this acerbic observation when Whitney rolled down her window and asked simply, “Do you like oranges?” and I quickly bit my tongue. The man said yes and walked toward the window, and she handed him two oranges we had left over from our drive. His wrinkled hands clutched the oranges like a treasured delicacy.
As we drove away, I remembered our poolside conversation about compassion. Whitney’s simple words, “do you like oranges?” replayed in my head, and I realized I still have a lot to learn. I believe the Golden Rule is not as easy as I think. To truly “do unto others,” I must sometimes be reminded of what I am like at my worst–my most smug, my most judgmental. I know exactly how I’d like to be treated at those moments, but I’m afraid that is rarely the way I treat others. Living a life of compassion is not just about feeling bad for pain I see on TV or writing a check after a major disaster. It’s about opening my heart, and my car window, to anyone who around me whose life asks for my help, whether he spells it right or not.
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