Despite all the mayhem in the world, compassion remains a natural human instinct

by Joanne Black / 15 June, 2017
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Tribute in Saint Ann's Square to the victims of the Manchester attack. Photo/Getty Images

Recently, I alighted from a bus at the same time as a man in an electric wheelchair who seemed to be struggling. The battery in his wheelchair was malfunctioning, he said, and he asked if I could push him. We went about four large city blocks and across a couple of major intersections until I got him to the building where he had an appointment. It was a strange trek, because apart from the considerable effort of pushing, I had to counsel him along the way. His life was crap, he said. We went past some dog turd on the footpath and he put his hand up to stop me, pointed at it and said, “That’s my life.”

He was grateful for my help but seemed annoyed that I would not join in his misery. “I’ve made bad decisions in my life,” he told me. “We all have,” I said. He said his life was very hard and I said I could imagine that because life is hard and being in a wheelchair must make even simple things more difficult. He was hard work in every sense. He said he wanted to give me money but did not have any, and I said I would not have taken it anyway. He had impinged on my time, he said. I was pleased to get exercise, I replied.

Eventually, we got to his destination and he was sure he could get to the appointment without further assistance, so I did not volunteer to wait to push him the four blocks back to the bus terminal. I hope someone else did and I have since thought of him often.

It must be hard to be confined to a wheelchair but harder still to find no joy in anything anymore. He seemed to be at least as trapped mentally as he was physically. Even though I had gone out of my way to assist him, he seemed to find no cheer in being reminded that there were people in the world who stopped to help strangers like him. Rather, the situation reinforced for him that he was useless and a burden.

But I am glad I helped. The more acts we see of suicidal criminals bent on cruel and malicious mayhem, the more reminders we need that compassion is a natural human instinct. In retrospect, I wish I had thanked him, although I think he would not have understood what I meant.

A couple of weeks ago, Montana elected a new representative to Congress, Republican Greg Gianforte, whose most notable act just before his election was to allegedly punch a Guardian journalist to the ground. Gianforte has been charged with assault but was elected anyway. In fact, a few extra people probably came down from the mountains to vote for him once news reached them that they had a candidate who was demonstrating such ideal qualities for public office.

Doubtless, when he gets to court he will argue extreme provocation, because the journalist had asked him about the effects of repealing Obamacare. Gianforte obviously found it unreasonable that a congressional candidate should be subject to questioning about public policy.

A friend in Montana wrote to me and said, “Greg Gianforte doesn’t represent this state. Okay, he does now, but you get what I mean.” It’s exactly the same way that President Donald Trump does not represent a huge swathe of the US.

He speaks for them, because he is entitled to as President. But he does not represent them.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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