Monday, 4 February 2013

Have we lost the art of compassion?

Ordinarily I write here about events in the news which I have opinions on, however something I experienced yesterday has compelled me to share it here and to ask the question, have we lost all sense of compassion?  


Yesterday on a train from London Charing Cross a woman got on at Waterloo East, stood at the entrance to the carriage and began to speak.  Initially I thought she was some kind of religious evangelist about to speak the word of whichever religion she might represent, however after telling the carriage her name and saying that she meant no offense, she then proceeded to say that she was homeless, that she had nowhere to sleep tonight, and that she would be very grateful if people could spare any change they might have in order that she be able to be safe and warm tonight.  She said that the streets of London are no place for a woman to be sleeping, and please would people consider helping her out.


The previously quite noisy carriage was stunned into absolute silence, and no-one said a word as she shuffled through the carriage.  No-one gave her any money either.  As soon as she’d gone people resumed their conversations, all apart from a group of young girls behind me who started talking about how awkward that was etc. 


A few minutes later she came back through the carriage and got off the train at Lewisham.  I can only assume that she may have continued to get on trains, going from one stop to another and then ultimately back again, and who knows how far she had come or how far she would go.


But what surprised me most was the reaction I got when I posed the question on Facebook and twitter, “if a woman silenced the train carriage you were in then said that she was homeless and could people please give her money, what would you do?”  I had expected a few people to say that they would give money, or food, had expected some to say that they would ignore her and do nothing.  However the responses I got ranged from “I would wonder where she got the train fare from,” as the majority response, with one stating that “I would see the train manager and ask for her to be removed since she clearly won’t have paid to be on the train,” of about 25 replies only three would have given her anything, two would have given money and one said he would give her food.  One even stated that she would move to another carriage. 


I will be the first to hold my hands up and state that I wouldn’t likely give money to a homeless person, not necessarily because I think that beggars are fakes just wanting to make money, but because a lot of people on the streets have substance abuse issues and I would feel uncomfortable giving someone money in the knowledge it might go to fund an alcohol or drug habit. But there are many homeless charities out there and I would give to those, and am about to sponsor a friend who is going to go to Everest base camp in order to support such a homeless charity. 


But while I might not give to individuals, I do wonder how we have developed into a society who can display such open hostility towards someone who is clearly in a worse off position than they are. Hostility that would state they would move to a different train carriage to avoid being in the same space as that person, for instance. 


There is no way of knowing whether the woman on that train was genuinely homeless or not.  However given the response she received I don’t imagine that riding a train line on a Sunday afternoon asking for money is a very lucrative pursuit, therefore I can only conclude that she was indeed someone who is in a worse off position than the majority of people who would see fit to judge her, and is at least deserving of some compassion if not our cash. 


So how is it that so many people feel unable to even feel compassion for someone in a potentially vulnerable position?


Have we lost the art of compassion?