Empathy and Apathy, go together in perfect harmony…

It sounds like a song from Stevie Wonder and Old Blue Eyes, but they are two issues I dealt with yesterday.

Believe it or not, 20 years ago I was a youth pastor. I was a bit of a religious zealot. Not the in your face kind, but a person who really believed that you could walk in the “Way” of Jesus. Through a number of events, my faith and my fortitude were challenged. I had to wrestle with other religions and religious dogmas, and come to my own opinions. It has been a long road to hoe.

When I was younger, I read the bible from cover to cover a couple of times. Most religious and Christian people profess allegiance to this book, but have never even read it. Or if they have, they have only read parts of it, the parts they like, over and over. Looking over the book, I came to the conclusion then as I do now, that the entire book is about sacrifice. Giving up what is good for you, for the good of others.

Having read the entire thing, the story that has stuck with me all these years is the story about Jesus and the woman at the well. My grandfather gave me a bible for Christmas. I just happened to open up the book yesterday to this story. Coincidence or providence? Now I’m not religious, I’m certainly not a Christian, I don’t go to church, and I didn’t even own a bible for the last 20 years, but I remember that story. Jesus is at a well, he asks a woman for a drink, she puts on pretense and he cuts her to the quick. He said, “Go call your husband,” she replied, “I have no husband”. He said, “You have answered well, for you have had five husbands, and the man that you live with now is not your husband.” Basically, he called her on her bullshit, and cut her to the quick. Because of that, she believed, and went and told everyone in the village that he was the messiah.

I remember thinking about Solomon. Solomon was asked by God, if you could have one gift, what would it be? He said wisdom. I asked in high school for the gift that Jesus demonstrated here; the ability to cut through the crap of peoples lives, and speak to their true selves- to their hearts. But, I have been apathetic.

As an artist, you are trained to see, trained to look, and trained to observe. This isn’t that far different from the gift I once asked for. Once you begin to study the movement of water, the sway of trees, the colors of the sky, the curl of a leaf, or the shape of a shell, the actions of humans are relatively easy to deduce. If you really observe people you will see that their intentions are to protect themselves out of fear. But learning to love is letting go of fear.

The second half of that gift that I asked for so long ago, the part that I hadn’t bargained on, was that once you see into the hearts, the intentions, the fears, and the souls of others…you feel their pain as well. You can empathize with them. I can empathize with the beauty of a bubbling brook, and be enraptured in the splendor of its traverse around the rocks, and I can empathize with the struggle of a homeless person as they are battered against the rocks of their own existence. It is a mixed blessing…to be able to see all the beauty around us…and all the pain.

So, last night I had a test. I went to Walgreens to buy some soap. As I was checking out I heard a person outside in a wheel chair panhandling for change. I NEVER EVER give to panhandlers EVER. I never have. I have purchased food for them. Once, I offered a banana to a woman who was asking for money for food downtown, she didn’t want it, and I said to her, “You don’t want food you want the money.” All those around laughed, because she had been caught at her game.

Standing at the checkout, I asked the voice inside my head (not that I’m schizophrenic) how much change should I give this lady. The answer came back, “Give it all”. The voice wasn’t talking about all the change, he was talking about everything in my wallet. I was flabbergasted. As I left, I gave her the 74¢ that was my change. I walked to my bike, and sat there and thought, and thought, and thought.

I thought about how I talk a good game, having even written here about it. How I mention the idea of living a self-centered life, or an others-centered life; two intentions. How could I profess to have learned these lessons, yet not practice it. This was a test. I wrestled with the ideas. “She might use it for drugs and alcohol?” “Why not give this money to a homeless shelter instead where I know it will be put to good use?” “Why everything in my wallet, that is A LOT of money?” “I have family and relatives that could use that money just as much, perhaps even more?” “To give her all of it?”

Then I was reminded, that when a young man came to Jesus and asked how one may inherit the kingdom of heaven, Jesus replied, “Sell all that you own to feed the poor.” At this point, the man went away disappointed because he was rich. I remembered that on this very blog I have mentioned feed the poor. If I gave to my family, it would be giving to me. Because they would love me because of my generosity to them. When I mentioned that I could give it to a shelter, the answer was, “fine do it.” But, what I realized was that I was looking for a way to not give away the money, I was looking for an excuse.

I sat there and wrestled with that decision for 30 minutes. Thinking, thinking, thinking. Wrestling with what I’ve espoused…and how I live.

I walked up to her and asked her what her name was. I then asked Linda how much she needed. She said she had made $7 dollars, and she need $10 more before she could go and get something to eat. I asked her if she had a place to sleep, and she confirmed that she did. I told her, “A voice inside me told me to do this”, and with that I emptied my wallet into her cup, exceeding her $10 quota. I then said, “Feel loved. Feel loved.” And, I rode away.

As I rode away, I wept. I wept not because I had no money, not because I had given it away, not because it was a lot. I wept because I helped his woman. I wept because the words that came out of my mouth, “Feel loved,” were not from me. I wouldn’t have thought to say that, but it was the thing that she probably needed to hear more. It is one thing to hear a person say it, but another to see it demonstrated.  I wept because I had passed my first test. I wept because I am not a hypocrite. I wept because I forgive, and I can let go of that pain and fill the hole with love. I wept because I did what was right when called to do so. When you are called to do something that you really don’t want to, but you do for sake and the betterment of others despite the disability that it might cause yourself, these are the moments of selfless living. You have taken the first steps to enlightenment. I wept because I experienced true joy.