Why do so many people have a limited understanding of human nature? This question often arises when I expect a certain human reaction to a personal or social problem and come away disappointed.
Last week, a man on his way home from our church joined us in the elevator at the parking garage nearby. He complained about the homeless man who's been occupying one of the upper floors of this city garage. "We can't allow that sort of thing around here," he sniffed, expecting the rest of us to agree.
"Certainly not so near the church," I wanted to say. I waited, stunned. Then I did say, "But our church reaches out to the homeless on a regular basis." He ignored this and went his way. So much for Christian compassion. Why does he bother going to church? Does he ever listen to the Gospels?
The next day, one of our neighbors, a woman in her early eighties, who has raised four children and seen something of life and its pain, complained to me about the homeless people (whom she never sees except in the news); it's all because of immigrants, she insisted. When I explained that, from my experience at the Coalition for the Homeless and other contacts, immigration has little to do with the people in central Florida dispossed of their homes by the mortgage meltdown, by abusive men, by drug-related problems, by mental illness. She remained unconvinced.
It was easier for her to blame immigration (foreigners, people not like us).
These two church-going people probably think they're goood in the way one of Flannery O'Connor's characters--Ruby Turpin in "Revelation,"--thinks she's good until she's hit in the head with a book and forced to examine her racism and selfishness. For such people, thinking plays a very small part in their lives. They're the type of people who are probably comfortable with Mitt Romney leading this country.
The meaning of compassion is beyond them. Yet they are not stupid or unfeeling people, just limited in their ability to take in the world around them.
Consider those who say, If only these homosexuals would cure themselves and be changed into "normal people." Or those who say, If only introverted people would just speak up and be more assertive socially, they would be more successful and popular. This example comes from an article by Nara Schoenberg (Tribune Newspapers 5-11-12) about the misunderstood minority of introverted people who have been shamed into thinking of themselves as weird instead of valuing the benefits of the inner life.
I think, too, of a personal trainer I once hired who was totally impersonal, in the way medical personnel often are. I mean doctors who fail to call me by name, who look at my chart rather than me, who fail to listen to what I say if I go beyond the scope of their questions, and who exit the room quickly, without a word of sympathetic understanding or encouragement. I am entitled to three minutes of their time, in most cases--if I'm lucky. I am a number, one of the many numbered patients they see every day in a mechanical way that has little to do with genuine healing.
What's missing in so many people's education is not classroom learning but a feeling-based, compassionate understanding of other people, a willingness to be open to more insight than TV viewing provides, a spirituality not always related to religious practice.
What I have in mind is reading widely as well as listening patiently to others, especially to those who suffer, because we have responsibilities beyond our immediate families and individual lives to the community of which we are an essential part.
The homeless man in the garage may make us uncomfortable, but he is our brother.
At issue are attention, empathy, real listening, and patience--qualities that are hard to acquire but need to be learned if we are to become a better society.