The Cost of Compassion
I heard the woman yelling before I saw her. I looked up from where I sat in my parked car to see an elderly woman, her shoulders rounded, dressed in a long yellow skirt and white cardigan standing on the sidewalk in front of me. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, the kind women wear while working in their gardens or sitting on benches by the ocean. The old woman shuffled along painfully slow like an insect crossing the savanna of a leaf. She had one of those small metal shopping carts in tow, stuffed with canvas tote bags and other items. In her other hand she held a cane that she used to steady herself as she walked. The woman wore a mask that did little to squelch the sound of her raised voice.
My gaze swung in the direction of her shouting. It was directed at a man on a bike who was also stopped on the sidewalk. He looked like he was in his early-40s. He had on a helmet and one of those shiny, lycra outfits that avid cyclists wear, which inevitably remind me of Slim Goodbody — the actor from the 1970s who appeared on PBS shows in a nude, spandex body suit replicated to show the inside of the human body to teach about nutrition and health. A little boy was strapped into the jump seat at the back of the bike. The man, or Bike Dad as I silently named him, had a face covering that was loose around his neck.
I couldn’t make out exactly what the woman was saying, but her tone suggested she was not exchanging pleasantries. “Go ahead. Go around,” I heard Bike Dad say impatiently. This did not work for her. She got louder. I watched her gesture angrily with the hand she had taken off her cart in a sweeping motion, waving him away. This did not work for him. This scene repeated for another minute or two, giving it the feel of an absurdist comedy routine.
“Go ahead,” Bike Dad said, trying a different tactic. “I’ll put this up. C’mon.” He plucked at his face covering. “It’s six feet,” he added, starting to get more agitated. “It’s fine. C’mon! Go ahead!” This math did not work for the elderly woman. She shook her head forcibly. Her voice rose. She drew herself up straighter and slammed her cane down on the pavement, punctuating her argument. Her defiance was too much for Bike Dad.
“You know what? You’re being insane! Stay home, then. Just stay home! I’m sick of people like you. Sick of it! Just stay in your house. Go home!” The woman became enraged, shouting back, continuing to stamp her cane on the sidewalk. For a brief second I flashed on an image of that cane connecting with Bike Dad’s helmet. In a bit of irony I’m not sure anyone involved appreciated, the woman continued yelling and inching her way forward on the pavement, putting herself in the exact situation that she was desperate to avoid. And then this happened:
“You’re a loser!” shouted Bike Dad. “Get out of here! Go home! My mother raised me with more manners than you, I can tell you. Get out of here, loser! Stay in your house!”
I watched the boy in the seat, young Lucas or Aidan or Zeppelin, bring his hands to his face, covering his eyes in that classic little kid move that says “if I can’t see it, it’s not happening.” You and me both, pal I thought. Bike Dad glanced behind him. “You’re ruining my kid’s life! Get out of here!” I winced. First, I wanted to invite this guy to my TED Talk titled “Hyperbole!: Know the Signs.” Second, my heart plummeted for young Lucas or Aidan or Zeppelin back there who was going to carry this memory with him forever. It was going to dent his psyche, no doubt, but probably not from the “yelly sidewalk lady.”
Verbally the woman held her ground. She unleashed an unbroken tirade against Bike Dad, her cane rising and falling repeatedly, as she eventually came into such proximity with him that he was forced to pull his bike onto the grass so she could pass. This could have been the solution from the start. Another check added to the glaring irony column.
The man continued to get a few parting shots of “stay home” and at least one more flaccid “loser” as he scooched his bike down the sidewalk, as Lucas Aidan Zeppelin clamped those tiny hands to his eyes, and as the woman went on her way, still ranting. A couple of cyclists stood in the parking lot across the street unloading their bikes and gear. They had given up on trying to pretend not to gawk. The man called out to them, soliciting some back up, something to the effect of that insane woman and what could he do, right? They both shook their heads: a solid non-committal gesture. He caught my eye and shrugged. What could he do? I weighed in on the situation with a stone-faced glare that I hope conveyed my disgust and dismay from the safe space of my locked vehicle.
Is this who we are now?
Maybe that woman was being irrational. Maybe her belligerence was completely unnecessary. Maybe a complete stranger doesn’t get to make that call. In regards to our aging population: they have earned the right to be irate, irrational, and downright ornery.
They have survived wars, economic depression, and, in some instances, not one, but two global pandemics. They have seen violence and civil unrest in their towns and neighborhoods, watched a man set his damn foot on the moon, buried partners and children, learned how to say “they/them” instead of “she/her,” survived disco, endured Crocs and Kardashians and so much more. At some point the human brain gets full up of rolling with the changes and you simply want things how you want them. We’ll all be there some day, though the way things currently are, many of us might get there by fifty instead of eighty.
But let’s suppose for a minute that you don’t know any of this. Let’s say that all you know about our beloved octogenarians is that they are sweet and quiet and often dozing in a comfy chair listening to a baseball game on the FM radio. Great. You’re wrong, but I would still watch that show. In that case, it makes sense that an encounter with an elderly woman where she’s shouting at you, shaking her cane in your general direction, is startling, nay, off-putting, even. What can you do, right? A lot. You still have the choice to let that shit slide. You have the power, in this scenario Bike Dad, to exercise your God-given right not to be a flaming D-bag to an AGING WOMAN TRYING TO AVOID A VIRUS THAT WILL LIKELY KILL HER. Irate, angry, unhinged, hysterical, mentally ill — none of those descriptors matter because what she actually is deep down is scared. Just like I am. Just like you, Bike Dad. Just like you’re working hard to keep Lucas Aiden Zeppelin from being.
What is the cost of compassion? A length of sidewalk? A ten-speed bike? A human life? Forty-eight hours after I watched this scene take place, two incidents unfolded in America where the absence of empathy enabled our most vile natures to flood the void resulting in abhorrent outcomes. The cost of compassion is zero, the same in every currency. It’s a far steeper and heavier tax we pay when allow our fears to blind us and we stop meeting ourselves in one another.