[ Stories from Dr. Yukari ]
One of the homework assignments were titled Day of Compassion. For this assignment, you were tasked to conduct an action of compassion to a stranger then had to report back to the class. Kelly was in her 40’s at the time of taking the class and had not done any at-home assignments since her school days. Despite this, she would spend two hours daily at a local library after work waiting for her husband to pick her up so they could return home together. She figured this would be the perfect window of time to complete her homework.
When contemplating her action of compassion, she noticed a homeless man she sees all the time. The disheveled man often wore dirty clothes and appeared to be in his late 20’s or early 30’s. She took notice of this young man due to his upbeat demeanor despite appearing to be homeless. Whenever someone gave him spare change, he would smile back at the person. On the first day she decided to approach him, she offered him a little bit of spare change.
On the following day, she decided to wait for her husband and sat at an outdoor café waiting to encounter the same homeless man. She mustered up the courage and said to him, “a cup of coffee will be my treat!” The man approached and took a seat possibly remembering Kelly from the day before. She introduced herself to him and explained that she usually waits here for her husband to finish work. The man introduced himself as Simon but did not say many words at the beginning. Slowly, Simon began to open up and began talking about his daily life and how he spends countless hours on a city bus going all over London. He told her about how he frequently spends his time curled up in the back seat of the bus. She never once asked him why or how he became homeless.
When Simon told her that he had not been back nor had contact with his mother in their hometown for over three years, Kelly decided to do a task for her homework. She asked him for the phone number and dialed to call his mother. On the other end of the line, the mother answered the call surprised. Kelly handed the phone over to Simon. After the call ended, Kelly asked Simon what he was going to do from now. Simon seemed unsure but Kelly took him to the long-distance bus terminal and purchased him a one-way ticket. She sent him off and said, “go home and be nice to your mum. Enjoy her cooking and then you can think about your future!” Simon sheepishly followed her instructions and left London on the bus.
Kelly’s real homework starts now when she has to report what changed her after completing this act of compassion. She took the courage to speak with a stranger, offered him a cup of coffee, and helped him call his mother. Kelly felt good for having the ability to help others. Deep inside, she felt that this gesture had changed her. She felt the power of being able to make a genuine difference in other people’s lives. She used to believe that homelessness was an issue that was beyond the scope of what she could solve. But through this exercise on compassion, she believed that it is possible to contribute and be a part of the solution. She successfully completed the online course and is now studying to become a counselor.
Kelly’s story reminded me of research by a medical team in Massachusetts where Dr. Swarts and Dr. Sendo trained a group of ALS patients whose symptoms were not nearly as advanced as others. The patients learned active listening and then they were later paired up with another group of ALS patients whose conditions were far worse. Over the following two years, the patients simply checked in with each other for 15 minutes over the phone for a month at a time. They never met face to face nor did they know each other’s full names. They talked and listened freely on topics ranging from their illness, current concerns, memories, families, and friends.
The results were quite interesting. The rate of the ALS advancement of those who were listened to by the other patient fortunately decreased. And more interestingly the rate of the advancement of the listeners was much slower. From this exercise, both the listener and the speaker showed overall improvements in health from their results.
Listening to others and caring to help others heal those who commit an act of compassion. Kelly acting to make a difference in Simon’s life in a small yet positive way, is an act of giving but also receiving. I love the concept of Alms or offering and giving, which is one of the six virtues in Buddhism in order to reach enlightenment. Buddha also lists Alms as the first virtue that one can regularly practice. If you were fortunate enough to have financial resources to offer, that can also be used for Alms. But without wealth, any one of us could offer Alms by showing compassion through various acts with a simple yet heartfelt smile.