Some years ago, I read a story from the Buddhist tradition:
Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion drowning in the water.
The elder monk scooped the scorpion up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung.
The monk returned to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in the water. The monk rescued the scorpion again… and again was stung.
The younger monk asked him, “Master, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?”
“Because,” the monk replied, “it is my nature to help.”
When I first read this story, I hated it. “Why does kindness have to mean suffering,” I thought. “Shouldn’t our true nature blend joy and compassion? Do we have to be martyrs to help people?”
But with the years, I’ve come to see this story differently – not so much a story about suffering and service but a teaching tale about being who we are no matter the circumstances.
An anonymous author wrote, “Homeless people are spirits sent from the heavens to test everyone’s true character.”
St. Francis wrote something similar when he said, “No one knows his name – the man who lives on the streets and walks around in rags. Once I saw that man in a dream. He and God were building an extraordinary temple.”
I don’t like to minimize the suffering of people experiencing extreme poverty as merely a tool for our own awakening. But, I understand the sentiment.
How we treat people experiencing homelessness teaches us about who we truly are.
As Gandhi said, “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members.”
I think the greatest aspiration in human ethics is the ability to connect with the ‘other’, to empathize, to feel with (the root meaning of compassion).
Eugene Debs expressed this marvelously when he said, “Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Some criticize the Shalom Community Center for acting on this, what many have called the greatest of human values. And yet, here we stand… with the poor, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, the addicted. We stand here because this is who we are.
To Love is our nature.
This piece was written by Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director, and published in the Safety Net.