I look forward to every New Year because the annual trek symbolizes renewed hopes and dreams. But I have conflicted feelings over the winter months.
I appreciate white Christmases, seeing children adoring the seasonal miracle. Yet snow, sleet and cold bring troubles to the homeless (most visibly) and others, poor mothers, low income people in snowbound rural areas, families in badly insulated housing, so on.
How many of the homeless, or the elderly will die of pneumonia and hypothermia?
The essence of winter is beautiful and dangerous.
Winter’s bleakness struck me more deeply because the year we left behind was filled with my unease of the growing callousness in America. Is “callousness” the right word? Do I mean the regrettable rise of “political partisanship”?
I do. But when politics dovetails with the intentional plan to afflict hardship on vulnerable populations (while the choice could easily have been made to assist and uplift them) then I say that the word “callousness” applies.
A few weeks ago, an incident occurred that reminded me how callousness, even in small, everyday situations can mirror callousness in national affairs.
I sat eating a late night snack at a Denny’s restaurant, thinking about America’s descent into a less kind, less understanding nation, while a winter storm billowed.
Not surprisingly, since the local Denny’s occupies the main thoroughfare, I saw stragglers outside. They were probably homeless. They clearly lacked suitable clothing for the wintry weather. The majority of them kept walking, hopefully hurrying towards provisional shelter. One among them stumble inside. Because he was inebriated, management quickly hustled him out. Then a still reasonably coherent middle-aged man entered.
Breathing heavily, he looked to be on the verge of tears or retching up. “Can’t breathe,” he said. “Think it’s my emphysema. Can you call an ambulance?”
He seemed to me to have made a reasonable request. However, given the late hour – and the nightly parade of indigents – the management wouldn’t take him seriously. The manager informed him he could stay inside a few minutes to warm himself up, before leaving.
I interrupted at this point and argued that:
- If the man didn’t have money for a cup of coffee, or a small meal, I would buy him either, because he looked sick to me.
- I noted that he hadn’t entered asking for money, or pestering customers. He wasn’t inebriated.
- I would call an ambulance for him myself, except that I didn’t have my cellular on me. He was making a request that would be honored if he looked ‘respectable,’ a request that should be honored whether he was or wasn’t homeless.
Naturally, I became involved in a disagreement. The manager muttered he was afraid of “legal liability.” He complained his business already suffered from too many homeless stragglers roaming at night. I sympathized. But I repeated my offer to buy the man in question a coffee, while assuring the manager he wouldn’t accrue any “legal liability issues” from heeding a simple request to make a phone call (and who knows? – providing assistance which could be life-saving). The manager fell guiltily silent.
I soon heard him on the line with 911. The ambulance arrived, shortly thereafter.
Is this the end of the story? Only in a provisional sense, because I don’t know the straggler’s diagnosis, nor how deeply the manager who had initially refused assistance thought about the incident afterwards. I stayed late into the night thinking about why people can easily slip into callousness towards the helpless, in particular indifference towards “the other.”
I wondered whether the manager had become so habitualized to dealing with the homeless folks in amorphous masses wandering the sidewalks, he had forgotten they’re human beings in physical bodies, susceptible to winter illnesses. Then I thought about the thousands of immigrant children held in detention centers, many still separated from their families under conditions of deprivation, leading to the recent deaths of a seven and an eight year old in southwest detention centers. I thought about the spike in hate rhetoric, or physical violence directed against both Jews and Muslims. I thought about the Trump administration’s push to enact policies that permit denying healthcare services to transgender people– like death sentences handed down merely on the basis of sexual orientation.
These sad scenarios all evidence a lack of compassion in U.S. policy. They have been perpetuated by a president who openly vilifies immigrants, people of color and anyone he deems the “other,” people that his supporters believe they can’t relate to, pity, or empathize with. The truth remains we should all be able to relate to human beings on the basis that they have physical bodies needing to be fed, nourished, protected from physical harm, or severe illnesses.
I thought about the phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,“ which possibly helped to explain the manager at Denny’s behavior. It’s another tragedy of our times that millions can feel moved by the reports of immigrant family separations, until a week later when a new tragedy dominates the news, leaving them spent and jaded.
But finally I saw that the coming year remained a time to be hopeful. Like the manager at Denny’s, America will have a choice to make and start at new beginning, with renewed energy, with resuscitated spirits. The new year brings with it a chance to make compassion the national resolution.