It was late at night, and I was walking home from a reading in a strange new city. I was alone; my boyfriend, the only person I had in this new place, was away on a trip, and it was just me. When I turned a corner and found myself under the overpass of the highway, I felt acutely aware of how deserted the streets were, how I’d reached a place where the friendly lights and the sense of safety had suddenly evaporated. Halfway under the long dark passage, I could see a shopping cart and a bundle of blankets. I knew someone was sleeping there that wet night.
I felt the usual rush of emotions that I think many city-dwellers are familiar with. Sadness, and fear. Pity and worry and nervousness all at once. Is it safe for me to walk alone, through this dark passage, me in my skirt and with my purse on my arm? And was it cruel and wrong to think that it wasn’t safe? There’s this twisting-stomach discomfort I feel when I walk by a homeless person. I know I can hardly imagine how difficult that person’s life must be right now; how difficult it must have been for a long, long time to reach that point.
But I’ve also had encounters that made me feel unsafe, that made me worry about being taken advantage of or endangered. Everyone who has been alone on a subway or in a dark alley has had those sorts of experiences, I suspect. Particularly women. I’ve written about the hard face, the indifferent attitude, that city living teaches you to acquire. It’s not just to avoid annoyances. It’s to make ourselves feel safe. It’s because of the strange men who come up to you, who ask you to smile, who want to give you relationship advice, who tell you you’re pretty, who keep following and following even when you walk away.
As women, we’re taught not to invite danger. Not to encourage strangers in the slightest way, with eye contact or by acknowledging their presence. It’s too risky. You think, Please, don’t talk to me. Just leave me alone.
I walked on by the bundle of blankets. Soon I was through the underpass and on to the other side. But later that night, still trying to get home, I found myself alone again, the only person waiting on a dark, cramped subway platform. A woman approached me, pulling a small child along by the arm. She stood too close. I tried to look away, but she was standing too close to me to be ignored. In a low voice she told me the shelter didn’t have any more beds for the night, and that her sister wouldn’t take her in. She didn’t ask for money or for help, explicitly. She just laid that statement out there on the ground between us, and waited for me to do something.
I looked away, and said I was sorry, but I couldn’t help. Normally that would signal to someone to walk away. But she wouldn’t leave. She took a step closer, so that I had to step back. She repeated her story. Again I said I was sorry. She said the same thing again. She didn’t move, she didn’t turn away. I finally did. I walked a short distance down the platform, and waited for the train. I was uncomfortable with her standing so close. The smell was overpowering. And I felt tremendous shame at noticing this, at being put off by such trifling and petty things.
It made me think of my favorite character from my favorite book, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Ivan, is a proud and haughty intellectual. He is intelligent and well-read, and claims to be an atheist. This is important to the book’s devoted Christian author. But Ivan is not your typical sneering, cynical charicature of atheists that religious writers often portray. Ivan desperately wants to believe in a loving, compassionate God. He wants to feel love and compassion himself for all human beings. But he cannot reconcile an all-loving God with the hard truth of the existence of suffering in the world. He can’t believe in a God who would let children be abused, who would allow innocents to be abandoned, dirty and forgotten. We at first believe Ivan is coldly distant from the warm beating heart of the earth. But in fact, he is one of the most deeply passionate characters in the book. He is wracked with grief that a world with the possibility of love could also contain such suffering. After describing a real-life case of terrible child abuse, he says to his brother Alyosha,
“Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little tormented breast with her tiny fist in that vile place, in the dark and the cold, and weep her sanguine meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that infamy, my friend and my brother, my pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this rigmarole must be and is permitted?”
Ivan is anguished by the most fundamental question that religions fumblingly try to answer — why, in a world created by a just and loving God, the suffering of innocent people is possible. I think many of us city-dwellers wonder exactly this when we encounter the homeless, when our usual evade-and-avoid techniques are thwarted. I think we wonder why we are here and they are there. We wonder what few mistakes, what small sequence of misfortunes, could reverse our roles. And at the same time, I scorn myself for thinking these things; it’s lofty and cruel to think of the Suffering of Humanity, instead of seeing people as individuals just trying to live their lives the same way I am.
Ivan is bracingly honest with himself and his brother Alyosha about his own shortcomings. Intellectually, he adores the idea of human compassion. The miracle of human communities, the way one person can care for the sick and the lowly with love and humility, is beautiful and true. But he cannot do it himself. He can’t get over the feeling of loathing and repulsion when he encounters someone poor and humble. He says:
“’I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of ‘John the Merciful’, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen, beggar came to him, and asked him to warm him up, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from the laceration of falsity, for the sake of the love imposed by duty, as a penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.’”
That’s the shameful struggle we encounter when we encounter someone less fortunate than ourselves. We want, dearly, to feel compassion for such a person. I know part of me wants to embrace that person. But part of me is repulsed by such ordinary, earthly matters as odor and appearance. When we encounter someone in the real world, someone who is hungry and dirty and who insists on bursting the protective little bubble we’ve drawn around ourselves…well? What do we do? What should we do?
Once the train came, I walked far down the platform and got in a distant car so I could be alone, so the discomfort of the encounter with the woman would end. But in a moment, I saw her coming down the aisle. She pushed her way through the adjoining doors of two cars, passing many empty seats. I don’t know why, but she was looking for me. She wanted to sit next to me. And she did. She sat in silence for the whole train ride, and I sat in silence beside her, looking away. I felt suddenly afraid of what she might do, of why she had singled me out. It was just the three of us — me, her, and her child — grouped together on that subway seat. Eventually my stop came and I got off, and that was the end of it.
I don’t know why she sat beside me, why she wouldn’t leave me alone in my armored city bubble. Maybe she wanted to punish me, to trap me there with my decision to ignore her. Maybe she wanted me to feel guilty. Or maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. The position of privilege can give us such an inflated sense of our own significance in the lives of others. Maybe I was a small nothing in her life.
But I feel the need to write about the shame and desire I felt then. Shame for my inability to embrace a stranger; shame for judging a person based on the frays in a sweatshirt collar, or for an odor, for an appearance. That always goes with the desire I have to feel compassion for people. That compassion always goes with the shame that I can’t live up to that ideal. Sometimes, it’s downright dangerous to live that ideal. If a man had stood so close, if a man I didn’t know refused to go away, followed me down a chain of subway cars, wouldn’t fear outweigh compassion?
Perhaps the only way I can show respect in this situation is to remember that the woman has a story that I will never know. That everyone has their own story, that everyone has a right to her own story, and that to assume I know the story is base. Any stereotypical story I can cook up in my mind would be grossly inadequate. As a writer, I think compassion can take the form of respecting the stories I don’t know and that I can only imagine.
Ivan is a beautiful character because he embodies some of the most fundamental struggles we face as human beings. He is searingly honest about the way that we fall short when reaching for our ideals. He also gives one of the most beautiful arguments for a worldview full of passion that has no need for a traditional concept of God. Ivan declares:
“I want to travel in Europe, Alysosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most previous graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them…I shall steep my soul in my emotions. I love the sticky leaves in the spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s guts.”
I want to love with my guts. It’s hard, sometimes. My mind, my prejudices, my fears, my intellect, all get in the way. But I still feel that want inside.