lived in the inner city for a long time. It is
not, by and large, a place of indiscriminate
virtue. I have discovered that compassion comes
no easier to the poor than it does to the rest of
humankind. Compassion is clearly more a state of
mind than a state of life. People are no more
generous here, no more kind here, no more virtuous
here than are people in the suburbs--despite the fact
that they know suffering as few do. How can that
be, I wondered? How is it that the poor do not
commiserate with the poor?
And then I understood: the poor know the burden
of injustice, seldom the privilege of mercy. It
is the advantaged who are called to compassion and
mercy because it is the advantaged who have the luxury
to give and the responsibility to understand.
I have known these things for a long time but
yesterday I saw them alive and smiling. I met
the young man in question in Cape Town, South
Africa. He was from Chicago, heard the American
accent, and took the trouble to tell me to
"I was beaten up on the street," he said,
pointing to his half-healed right eye.
"They stole the shoes right off my feet."
I winced a little.
"When I called to tell my mother," he said,
"she was furious. But I said to her,"
he went on simply, "Mom, you don't
understand. Those shoes cost more than most of
these people make in a year."
He smiled a little. "I just hope they fit
I realized that I had just seen real compassion in
action. He understood the offense. He
oozed no righteous fury. In that smile, I
learned a lot that I had known for years but, all of a
sudden, knew differently.
with Our Souls