Compassion in Action

The other morning, I woke up to a sharp winter sun rising over the Mediterranean. Behind me, the White Mountains showed they are worthy of their name. Capped with fresh snow, they hurled a cold northerly wind at us, cutting through the bluest of skies to make this a perfect morning for a brisk walk by the sea.

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I wrapped up well and walked the 200 yards or so down the steep, winding little path in the cliff edge, onto the beach. The freshness of the morning was invigorating. I decided to walk towards the harbour where sleepy little fishing vessels were quietly huddled together under the protection of the quay wall, disturbed only by the shrieks of the seagulls cursing at me for waking them too early.

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When I walked past the taberna, now closed for winter, an unfamiliar shape caught my eye. It was lodged under the wooden platform that extended out from the taberna onto the beach. Like the taberna, the platform has seen better days.
At first I thought the shape was a washed up buoy or maybe a bag of rubbish hidden there by somebody to lazy to walk to the next rubbish collection point.

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And then the shape moved. Only ever so slightly, but nevertheless, it moved. With the movement, it also produced a little grunt. As I watched, the shape slowly unfurled into a dark skinned, sinewy thin woman. At a guess, Asian-African, possibly Somali.
She looked at me once, in silence, and simply carried on doing what she was doing. There wasn’t the slightest hint of her even noticing my presence. To my amazement she produced a small child from underneath the blanket, which she then turned into a sling. In the protective cocoon of the sling, she put the child on her breast and walked away, without a sound.

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Poor woman with child

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The sum total of this woman was there, in front of me, moving further away in slow motion. The clothes she wore, her blanket and her child. That was all. Was that really everything?
What happened? Why? How? Who is she? Where? What are her hopes and dreams? For herself, for her child..?
Hundreds of questions raced through my mind, and the single answer kept coming back in reply; “I don’t know”.
I’ll never forget her haunting eyes. At the same time questioning, accusing, wondering. But not pleading. She had gone beyond pleading, beyond asking. Her silent loneliness was her last defence against a world that didn’t want her.
I felt totally inadequate, and ashamed. I could have reached out, offered help, maybe some food, or my warm jacket, or… But I didn’t. The whole scene was just so surreal, a freeze-frame moment that seemed to last for eons.

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Today I went to Chania to get some supplies, and while crossing the road to go into the market for fresh fish and goats cheese, I saw her again.
The same woman, wearing the same clothes, her child sleeping on her shoulder. Today, her blanket offered itself as a pillow to the child. She stood at the entrance to the market building, and watched, in silence. Her dark skin even darker, backlit by the sharp low winter sun.
She did not hold out her hand, she didn’t ask for anything. She stood in silent witness to an uncaring world, so caught up in itself it neither notices nor cares about those it leaves behind.
Then, a little girl, she could have been 8, maybe 10, came out from the market building. She skipped up to the woman and put a loaf of bread into her hand. Then the girl disappeared back into the market again, dancing, smiling, brimming with life.

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Not a word was spoken between them. Compassion doesn’t need words, it is action.
If we can go beyond telling our children about charity, if we can teach them that real charity is compassionate action, all is not lost.
Today, a smiling, dancing little girl in Chania showed an uncaring world, so caught up in itself it neither notices nor cares about those it leaves behind just how simple compassionate action is. I hope the world was watching…

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Chania, Crete. 15/12/2012

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Ephilant – 09/03/2013

One Response

  1. Very human and beautifully written piece.

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