Practicing compassion, caring for others and sharing their problems, lays the foundation for a meaningful life, not only at the level of the individual, family or community, but also for humanity as a whole. ~ His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
People say that there are only three seasons here in Maine: Summer, Autumn and Winter. Summer is glorious and we revel in it. The long hours of sunlight, filling our days with the beach or boating. Lovely picnics and laughter well into the warm evenings. Autumn is nothing short of magical. The trees turn colors we only see in gemstones; rich ruby, glimmering topaz and vibrant amber. Winter, while seemingly endless, takes on a rhythm and sense of coziness. The snow blankets every surface and shines like diamonds each morning. Spring, however, remains elusive. Gray skies, torrential rains and fields growing nothing but mud seem to be the norm. The past few days, however, have been exceptional. I have taken to walking my dog, Murphy, and have taken full advantage of the sunshine to get back into shape following my surgeries. Walking has been therapeutic for both my own health, and for Murphy's...as he tends to look more like a Hippopotamus, than a Retriever mix.
Our long walks have taken us into town, exploring streets we don't normally travel. It's been a bit of an adventure for the two of us.We love setting out in the morning, with no particular destination in mind. We may not be ready for a 10K walkathon, but we are definitely improving our stamina.
However, a recent walk left me shaken, not from over-exercising, but from my own fears. As Murphy and I lumbered along in our usual mediocre pace, I saw a young man on the road ahead of us. He had a tattered coat, an over-sized backpack that was bursting at the seams and a very long, shaggy beard. His entire demeanor gave off a threatening vibe. I looked around and didn't see another soul on the road, either in a car or on foot. In short, I was scared to death. I was a woman alone with a dork of a dog on an isolated country lane.
My conversations with my friend, Jennifer, immediately sprung to mind. Jen is a gifted social worker and teacher on womens' issues of personal safety. I have learned more from her than from anyone else on this subject. Jen taught me to scream "FIRE!", rather than "Help!" in an emergency....people being who they are are far more likely to respond to the former plea than they are to the latter. I learned that, if someone tries to pull me into a car to hold onto something solid, like a telephone pole or, when biking, to my bicycle. Jen explained a number of ways to incapacitate a would-be abductor. All of these scenarios flashed through my mind in an instant. I felt my heart pounding in my throat as the scary fellow approached. I seriously considered turning my dog around and running as fast as I could in the opposite direction.
In the next instant, I was filled with shame. Here was someone clearly down on his luck, and walking to his next destination. My recent theology class discussion about compassion rang in my ears, and I was horrified to have judged harshly when I espouse kindness above all else. Are my lessons in practicing hospitality, generosity, graciousness and consideration just empty ideals, with no place in my real life? Can I say one thing in an abstract setting and another when faced someone in need? My face burned red with embarrassment.
So, where is the fine line between ensuring our personal safety and practicing altruism? How can we remain grounded in a dangerous world, and be mindful of our own vulnerabilities, while still showing tenderness to those in need? With my thoughts on ways to keep myself (and Murphy) safe, I continued walking towards the intimidating man. I made eye contact, I smiled and said a cheerful, "Good Morning!" to him. He stopped and looked right at me. His gentle blue eyes showed nothing of the 'keep away' signs I'd seen before I spoke to him. Though bedraggled, his entire persona seemed to shift before my eyes, transforming him into a handsome, albeit world weary, traveler. He reached down and patted Murphy's immense head before looking up at me and saying, "And, good morning to you, Ma'am" with such kindness in his face. We exchanged another smile, and then went each in our own direction.
I was reminded of the verse from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it." I didn't entertain the young man, nor did I invite him home. I knew that that would be foolish of me. But, I am happy that I showed kindness, rather than rudeness, and a peaceful heart, rather than a fearful one.
Who knows? Perhaps I just 'entertained an angel'. Or, at least, brightened someone else's day. In either scenario, I feel both blessed and grateful for the encounter.