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What traveling taught me about compassion

Why it's important that we acknowledge our intention behind our call to to help others.

Quitting my job to travel the world was one of the best decisions I ever made. There are a lot of people who say that, and all for a wide range of reasons. Whenever I tell people I spent 363 days wandering the globe, with a non-comprehensive list of experiences that included working at a dive shop in Thailand, laying bedridden in Thailand with Dengue fever, facing emergency surgery in India after a motorbike accident and, on a lighter note, meeting some of the most amazing people I have ever or will ever come across, I always receive a similar question: “what was the most memorable part?”

That question, in many ways, is complicated. For one, there are simply too many people, places, things, feelings and memories for there to be one that stands out as the pinnacle. But there is a dominant philosophy, or lesson if you will, that I’ve been able to draw from all of it.

I’m not sure it’s something that can be packaged neatly in a perfect, memorable sentence. It’s messy, convoluted, just like the world we live in. But it does have its roots in an old adage we all know but frequently fail to embody: we are one.

There are a lot of beautiful things to be seen across the planet. There are also a lot of things that will make your heart ache; the injustice of poverty, the destruction of once beautiful natural landscapes at the hands of humans, and sickness that you can’t do anything to solve. And while the beauty that surrounded and continues to surround me on a daily basis is certainly an appreciation emphasized while traveling, it was the heartaches that taught me the greatest lessons.

There was one specific experience that still sticks with me to this day.

We were in Greece, a beautiful place flocked to by tourists, but also a place that is well-known for the poverty amongst its citizens. According to economic statistics, “Greece has spent a combined 90 years — nearly half of the time since its independence — in financial crisis. 49.7% of Greece’s young active population is unemployed and Greece’s economic crisis today (2015) is worst than this point in the US’ Great Depression.”

And if you look beyond the Acropolis and the tourist-beckoning islands, it’s easy to see; the elderly beggars on the streets, the unemployed youth lounging around on street corners, clearly bored but more noticeably apathetic towards the crisis defining their economic future, and city streets and structures that are in ill-repair and visibly decaying. It’s a sad element of the country to acknowledge as a tourist, because anyone who has spent time as a visitor someplace knows that we only want to see the best, even if only so that our memories can remain positive during nostalgic recalls with loved ones years later.

One afternoon while we were in Athens, my sister and I were walking down one of the populated city streets, returning from one of the many ruins that brings millions of tourists to Greece every year. Tired from the day, we were both quiet and doing our best to be present to our surroundings, while also yearning for a shower and a nap before dinner. It was during this time of forced observance that we walked by an elderly man sitting on the curb whom from what we could tell, was in a state of extreme sickness.

Overweight and dirty, it was easy to believe that he had spent years with no feasible income. He was old, and carried with him many of the challenging symptoms that come with age. Most heart-wrenching was the seemingly useless catheter dangling from his side and the simply written sign he was holding that we could only guess was begging people for help. Pain seemed to be surrounding him, like an impenetrable bubble. He was barely awake and likely didn’t know we had both unintentionally stopped to look, which was for the best because it was too much for both of us to handle. Tears flooded to my eyes, and my sister pulled out whatever leftover coins we had from the day from her wallet and put them in the makeshift basket sitting near the man’s side. We started to leave, and then quickly turned around and gave him a few more coins from the bottom of our backpacks. As we walked away our silence was different than when we had arrived. We were both, in our own way, heartbroken for this stranger.

This experience still brings tears to my eyes to this day and I often wonder what happened to that man. But despite the heartache that memory causes me, I cherish it more intensely than almost any other life experience, because it taught me this lesson:

I, nor anyone else, have the authority to decide who is worthy of our compassion. A couple of short blocks later, my sister and I passed another homeless man, one who most would agree was mentally ill, likely not sober and aggressive in his requests for aid. Seeing this man immediately after the previous one was jarring, as both were clearly in need of help, but in such obviously different ways. Having given our last coins to the man up the street, we both walked past this one without eye contact, and I recall hearing someone nearby say that “a man like that didn’t deserve any help.” That statement stopped me in my tracks, because at that moment it became so glaringly obvious to me, all the ways we (humans) are being wrongly–selectively– compassionate.

Compassion, by definition is unconditional. But I think most of us at some point of another have been guilty of determining someone to be “most worthy” of our aid, thoughts, prayers, etc. It can hard to offer our hard earned resources to people that we don’t know and don’t understand and our resources certainly deserved to be thoughtfully allocated. But it’s important we acknowledge our intention behind our call to to help others. Is it because we feel superior, and worthy of deeming someone an acceptable recipient of our abundance? Or are we taking care of everyone, regardless of what their story looks like on the surface? Because at the end of the day, we are all one — and we all deserve to be treated with unconditional compassion.

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