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Dharma Connect: A Compassion Recession?

As the recession drags on in European Union countries and austerity measures affect more and more people, the newly poor aren't finding sympathy but are being blamed. People trapped in the fear that they too will become victims look for characteristics that separate them from the suffering ones, setting up a binary of lazy poor people vs hard-working me.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a writer for the Guardian UK, comments:

As life gets hard for the middle classes, they turn harder and the same is happening to those who define themselves as working class. Most of our people, it seems, approve of the benefits cuts, the bedroom tax, substantially reduced disability allowances and a drastic cull of local services. They are now persuaded that the needy are greedy and are a parasitic horde responsible for our shrinking GDP and economic woes.

... Compassion is now a minority hobby in this great country where, remember, the welfare state was created during years of unimaginable  hardship and post-war devastation.

The etymology of "compassion" is Latin, meaning "co-suffering." Compassion leads to the desire to alleviate another's suffering, and is at the heart of the bodhisattva path.The Dalai Lama has said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

If you want to be miserable, live in fear and blame others for their situation.

To whom have you hardened your heart?

Thumbnail image from guardian.com; image above from the New York Times

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What to do?

I see people begging on the streets of New York every day, and I was brought up to ignore them -- my parents warned they might just be "acting to get free money".

Somehow I don't believe that's the case (there are easier ways to make a quick buck than sitting out in the dusty street in the hot sun all day), but with so many asking, sometimes I want to give. But I have no way of really knowing who needs the money the most, who is the most deserving, and is it really in my power to be able to help them? So I've chosen not to give.

Yet after reading this, I wonder if it's really my place to question who needs what and how much, and why, and how. Perhaps it's better not to know, to simply give and simply be satisfied in creating good karma.

Au contraire

I softened my heart last Saturday for a needy person on the streets of Northampton, MA - and paid her an amount higher than any I have ever paid anyone in any similar incident. I have been called stupid (among other things) for similar acts in the past, and this was no exception (from someone who happened to be with me at the time) - but if what seems to be a human being's tears doesn't move me, and I walk away, I will not be able to forgive myself for being so hardened (even for the best of reasons and/or justifications). If those tears weren't real, then heck - she deserves the money anyway for being a darned good actress (which I still believe she wasn't, and that she was really sad). Also, instead of judging her in case I see her panhandling again, I will assume that I merely helped her out with her immediate needs, and didn't set her up for life. I refuse to get cynical and hardened - even at the cost of being called whatever choice adjectives people might have reserved for me and my ways.


I struggle with what to do about people on the streets of Northampton. often the stories on their cardboard signs are so sad ... they touch my heart, even when I don't give.


It's a constant challenge. I usually try to give at least something, even though there are some exceptions every now and then. But this particular woman had been sitting there for hours (later on, when I talked to her, she mentioned that she'd been there since 6:30 AM on both Friday and Saturday, and all she had to show for her time spent there was $14, which was far less than what she immediately needed for some preventive medicine). I had passed by her a couple of times, and was going to give her some money before leaving Northampton later that evening, but before I could get to that, I found her quietly sobbing - and yet trying to be discreet about it - things like that make me all emotional. She didn't even want the food and drink I offered her (I had some wrapped up food from earlier that evening - not left over food, but untouched), so I asked her for more details, and why she was sad - and after hearing what she had to tell me, sobbing all along, I couldn't, with a clear conscience, just walk away and justify to myself that I could not be "stupid enough" to help her out with her immediate needs. It broke my heart to see her so sad - and even if I was really taken for a ride, I'm fine with it - like I mentioned before, it was only a short ride, and not one that has the potential to change my destination (pardon my overstretched analogy). Needless to say, I left her the food and drink as well, and have been doing tonglen ever since, with a sincere hope that she is feeling better than when I last saw her.

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