Who ‘deserves’ compassion?

How do you decide who is deserving of your compassion? Or is there even such a thing as ‘deserving compassion’?

Last weekend when I went into London I saw a woman vomiting in Euston station. She was trying to hide doing it behind a bin. I first walked past. Then I looked in my handbag and found a tissue, turned back and walked up to her to offer it. She looked up and I asked if she was okay. She said yes, despite not looking so great. I asked again, “are you sure? You don’t need anything?” She declined and I had to accept that at face value, so I walked away again. But the look on her face after our brief interaction was telling – she was grateful. Perhaps at the random act of kindness shown. Perhaps at the lack of judgement. Perhaps at being noticed and asked if okay.

The looks on the faces AROUND us were mixed. Some looks of disapproval or disgust. Some showing concern but still walked on. Most did not even seem to notice.

Let’s see if we can consider what this is about. Let’s hypothesise about what thoughts were going through the minds of the other people around us. Or what may be possible causes for this woman’s sickness. The thoughts we have about the situation and the facts of the situation may not fully overlap, you see. The brain is funny that way, jumping to conclusions in the fastest way possible so that we know how to act in any given situation.

Anyway. Here are some possible causes I have brain stormed up – you can see for yourself which one your mind gets drawn to, or which one you may have thought of when you read ‘a woman vomiting’.

– Pregnancy / morning sickness
– Alcohol in excess or hangover
– Vomiting bug
– Food poisoning
– Chemotherapy
– Motion sickness from the tube
– Severe cough causing a vomit
– Terminal illness
– Anxiety
– Trauma like being a victim or witnessing something frightening

Which one of these went through your mind? Which one do you think others thought of as they passed and didn’t stop to offer help? We are so quick to pass judgment, and that is just what minds do, but we can notice and pay attention to our judgmental thoughts. Slowing down and stepping back from our thoughts gives us perspective and a chance to think about what the facts are around them. Gives us headspace to consider the situation. To choose a different action. To choose compassion. To show someone a random act of kindness.

What look do you think was on MY face as I walked onwards on my way after this small and seemingly insignificant interaction? Think about it for a moment. How would I have felt in my body? What would have been running through my mind?

(Pause over. Answer below.)

I was smiling.
I was feeling lighter in my step.
Not because I had alleviated this woman’s suffering. I hadn’t. She had still been sick. She may still feel nauseous. She may experience shame or embarrassment about having vomited in public. Worry about how to get home. Fear that it is something serious (if not knowing the cause).

I was smiling because I had acted in line with my values. I value helping people. I think it is important to be kind to others. I want to be the kind of person who DOES go up to someone who is poorly and offer support. I want to model compassion to my child. I believe in connection. I was smiling because doing good FEELS good. Random acts of kindness or compassion feel physically and mentally good. Connection with others feels good. We need to nurture each other. That was what was running through my mind, of how I had done something small for someone where I also had the choice not to. The Dalai Lama says that kindness is always possible.

If you had thought that she had vomited because she drank too much last night, you may have follow on thoughts such as ‘she can suit herself’ or otherwise implying she has brought it upon herself and doesn’t ‘deserve’ compassion. I get that. We all get into that space. It is very hard showing compassion for someone you don’t like, don’t agree with or don’t approve of the actions of. Someone who isn’t like us. But you see, we so often don’t know the whole story. What brought a person to the point they are now. If you somehow knew that she had just stepped off the train as she was about to be sick from pregnancy hormones, would you have offered her support? Or if she had just come from a hospital appointment of chemotherapy? Or if she had just seen someone step in front of the tube to take their own life? No, we don’t know. We assume. Which makes an ass of you and me.

We. Just. Don’t. Know. Their. Story.

Kindness is always possible.