April 15, 2013 by mcknz
From Compassion to Endurance
This week of the Omer we transition from week three to week four, from compassion to endurance. It’s a fitting transitional phase because it has been my experience that one cannot exist without the other. In order to be truly compassionate people we must have the endurance to do so.
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this transition of the Omer and thinking about my life and ways that my compassion has and has not endured and inevitably my mind goes back to October of 2012 when Super Storm Sandy devastated much of the shoreline of Queens, New Jersey and Staten Island. Like thousands of people I was catapulted into action and spent days in the cold weather, in the dark delivering food, water and supplies to people affected by the storm. Even as the subway stations roared to life I remained in The Far Rockways for another day. I suppose you could say that compassion drove me to endure.
I returned to work and had what I can only describe as a crisis of faith. Working in Jewish non-profit I sometimes have the naïve idea that our work is supposed to change the world, that we’re to live our values of tikkun olam-that we’re supposed to make a difference. How could I make a difference sitting in an office before a computer?
What was I doing with my life?
I went back to work in a colleague’s apartment since our own building suffered enormous damage from the storm and spent that first day at the “office” in tears. Much of the day I cried silent tears and tried to focus on work yet continued to be distracted by my surroundings.
When I went to the bathroom it smelled pleasant, the toilet flushed, I turned off the lights. And in the simple act of turning a light on and off I remembered a trip to the 12th floor of the Shoreline Building to deliver water to an older woman. Having spent the majority of the day in a central location distributing aid this was my first time in one of the dark high rises. As my breath became harder to catch by the fourth floor I resisted the urge to complain. My eyes adjusted to the light created by my head lamp and when we got to the floor I tried to remain calm. It was a dark corridor lit only by our head lamps and glow sticks.
We found the apartment and knocked quietly. After the third knock I was told that many people didn’t answer the doors for fear of who could be on the other side. By the fourth knock a small, older woman who reminded me of my grandmother opened the door.
We made small talk as she prepared to settle in for the coming night. I had to pee and she saw my “gotta go dance”.
“You gotta pee, honey?” she asked with a slight Caribbean accent.
“Yeah, do you mind?”
“No, it’s through that door” she said pointing down the hall.
I walked in the door and instinctively went for lights that didn’t come on. I shut the door and squatted over her toilet in pitch darkness. The smell was overwhelming-it’d been nearly a week since she’d been able to flush her toilet.
That memory flashed through my head in the Park Slope apartment we worked out of and I cried again.
Two days later I made it through the week without crying, one week later I went on with my life and didn’t think much about the Storm or the people that it affected, the people that affected me. Months later I don’t think much about Far Rockaway or my time there and I’m not sure how to process what that means. Does it mean that I no longer have compassion?
Occasionally the local news will report the number of occupants still without telephone service and I think about the time I spent there. I think about the friends that I met sorting diapers and duct tape, I think about the people I met and I think about how those people changed who I am and how I view the world.
Simon Jacobson says, “For compassion to be fully realized, it needs bonding. It requires creating a channel between giver and receiver; a mutuality that extends beyond the moment of need, a bond that continues to live on. That is the most gratifying result of true compassion.”
It is my hope for this week that we are able to think about ways that we can be more compassionate, reflect on ways when our compassion has had positive effects on people and ways that our lack of compassion has affected people and ways that we can create lasting impressions of compassion that endure in real and meaningful ways.
Erika Davis is a freelance writer, blogger and Jewish diversity advocate living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She writes the blog Black, Gay and Jewish which serves as a rough draft for the memoir she hopes to one day pen. Erika likes Syrian Jewish cooking and is convinced she makes the best hummus in Brooklyn. She is an active volunteer with the Jewish Multiracial Network.