Six summers ago, I was coming home from picking Alissa up from summer camp when we got into a car accident. As the insurance statistics tell the story, we were just a few blocks from home, stopped at a stoplight. The light turned green, we all started to go when a car a few ahead of me suddenly slammed on its brakes.
In turn, we all slammed on our brakes. Except for me. My flip flop got caught on the gas pedal and I slammed on the gas, ramming my car into the car in front of me. We pulled our cars into a nearby parking lot and my heart raced.
I had been out of work for two months and I was quite impatiently waiting on a job offer from a company I had been interviewing with for a month. I was late on rent, my car payment, and everything else. My car insurance had lapsed and I had just gotten a traffic ticket four days before. The last thing I needed at that moment was a car accident.
“I can’t afford this. I can’t afford this. I can’t afford this.” These words were racing through my mind on repeat when the driver of the other car got out to inspect the damage. Her bumper had a few scratches on it, but was otherwise fine. My car was leaking antifreeze everywhere and was definitely not fine. I burst into uncontrollable sobs and all of my frustrations and stresses came tumbling out with them.
We exchanged information and she told me that she didn’t think we needed to call the police or file an insurance claim, but that she did want to get her bumper fixed. I didn’t tell her that my insurance was lapsed, but I breathed a sigh of relief. She said she would get an estimate and let me know.
I got the job, but the damage to the car was far more than I could afford. I ended up “selling” the car to the repair shop in lieu of payment and the bank took the rest. The woman I hit called me back a few days later to give me the information about getting the bumper fixed, but after that, I never heard from her again.
I went four years without a car after that day. I relied heavily on public transit to get to and from work and to get Alissa where she needed to be. It was horribly inconvenient most days, but it was what we had to do.
There were days between paychecks when I was scraping together change to have enough bus fare for us to get to school and work. There were other days when I had enough to get to work, but not enough to get home. I would surreptitiously check the trash cans around the bus stop or train station, hoping to find a transfer pass that was still valid. I hated that I was doing it, but it was better than calling in sick for work because I could barely afford the $2.25 to make it there and couldn’t afford to make it home.
There were times that I even tried to pass off an expired transfer slip, hoping that the bus driver either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care. I always had grave anxiety, wondering what I would do if the driver wouldn’t let me on the bus.
One day, I was $1 short and had no idea how I was going to pull off a ride home. I was feeling particularly desperate and I boldly asked the stranger waiting with me if she could spare the difference. She couldn’t, she answered, but she handed me one of her prepaid passes instead.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, I thanked her and silently vowed that the next time I saw her, I would return the favor. I never saw her again.
This morning, I took the train downtown for a meeting. Since I have had the luxury of owning a car again, riding the train seems to be more convenient than driving. I jumped off the train and got a cup of coffee across the street from the station, and as I was doubling back to head toward my meeting, I noticed a woman rummaging through a trash can. The bag was mostly empty; it looked like it had been changed recently. I walked past her and out of the periphery of my eye, I saw her walk to another trash can.
I stopped and watched as she dug through that mostly empty can and moved to the next. I recognized that look of sheer desperation and defeat. I was never as brazen as to dig so obviously, but I knew what she was looking for – a discarded ticket that she could still use.
I dug around in my purse for every spare bit of money I had and walked up to her.
“Excuse me, do you need a bus fare?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
I handed her all the money I had, not sure if it was quite enough and said, “I hope this helps.”
She thanked me and said, “God Bless You” as I walked away.
The idea of compassion had been weighing heavily on me all day today as I thought about how we’ve gotten to a place where we can show so little compassion for our fellow humans. I think to the many “debates” I’ve had on Facebook about immigration, welfare, and transgender rights and wonder at what point we stopped looking at each other as people and started looking at each other as liabilities. Is it really that hard to show a little compassion, even if you don’t understand what the other person might be going through?
The compassion of a woman who was entitled to file an insurance claim and sue me for damages, allowed me to deal with a car accident for no money out of pocket.
The compassion of a stranger enabled me to pick up my child from school on time in a moment that I had no idea how I was going to get to her (or home) at all.
Because of my choosing to show compassion today, someone else got what they needed. It didn’t take much effort on my part, it just took recognizing someone in need and helping them as best I could. It took stepping out of my comfort zone just a little bit to spread some love. My day went on fairly unchanged, but for all I know, my small act of compassion changed someone else’s life.