As required reading for a workshop class, I recently read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. I found it pretty “meh” as far as essay collections go, but one bit stuck out for me: a description of how Dunham’s grandmother “had fled her sheltered life for Mount Holyoke College, Yale nursing school, and then the army, where she was stationed in Germany and Japan suturing wounds and removing shrapnel from German soldiers despite strict orders to let them die.” Embedded here, in a long article mainly focused on the author’s fear of death, is a description of a moment in her life in which she pressed on — despite what some would consider good sense and others might grotesquely call morality — and acted with compassion.
I’m of the opinion that compassion, a genuine sense of sorrow for the suffering of others and a desire to alleviate it, should be a standard virtue, like respect or empathy. Radical compassion goes a step farther, leading people to act with compassion when it is not only inconvenient, but also difficult or dangerous.
The story of that woman, listed in the essay as Carol Marguerite Reynolds, made my day. In this article, I’ll list a few more examples of people I feel can stand next to her example. Whether they have had the same impact, I cannot guarantee, but I think they deserve a platform to have their stories presented and the standard they set appreciated.
Northeastern Barbers Giving Free Haircuts to Homeless People
Some of you may have read the names of Mark Bustos and Anthony Cymerys. Both men had their stories go global after local news reported on their volunteer work in Hartford, Connecticut and New York City, respectively. Both of them spend their days off giving haircuts to homeless people, free of charge.
Bustos began back in 2012 after visiting his native Philippines with his family and cutting hair for underprivileged children there. His work days are spent at Three Squares Studio, a high end salon on West 17th Street, but once a week, he wanders the streets of Manhattan for hours, politely offering his services to folks in need. Sometimes, he is accompanied by his girlfriend, who offers food to his customers. The individuals he helps often follow up a session asking if he knows of any places that might be hiring. Those who consent to it allow Bustos to post photos and videos to his Instagram account, a practice he avoided until very recently when he decided it might be worthwhile to inspire others to reach out in their own capacity.
Cymerys’s story went viral a year earlier, specifically for a bit of injustice involved. For over 25 years, “Joe the Barber,” as he’s known in the area, has spent his Wednesdays in Hartford’s Bushnell Park, giving haircuts to homeless people in exchange for hugs. His friends would also join him to give out food. The 82-year-old was never licensed to cut hair, and this fact, combined with some less-than-compassionate attitudes, led some local folks to call in the police and try to stop his practice. The mayor, however, sided with Cymerys and his supporters (local and global), and gave a special dispensation allowing him to continue his work.
We can argue over the problems of respectability politics and a society that requires people live up to a certain standard of presentability. We can say that Bustos may be displaying a kind of poverty porn by posting those photos. We might question Cymerys asking for those hugs. (I certainly did.) But what should never be questioned is the compassion of the action. Bustos did a wonderful deed in the Philippines and, certainly, no one would have chided him for not continuing after he returned, but he carried on. Between the removal and the dispensation, Cymerys persisted in his work, regardless of ordinations. Humble and caring for neither praise nor expectation, these men only desire to do good for the people who come to them.
A Reformed Neo-Nazi and the Gay Man Who Forgave Him
In 2013, a short documentary came out called Facing Fear. It dealt with the winding story of Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger. In the early 1980s, Zaal and his gang of fellow skinheads brutally beat Boger, then a runaway living on the streets of Hollywood after his mother had thrown him out for being gay. After Zaal kicked in Boger’s skull, the group left him for dead in an alleyway. Boger survived, but the trauma stayed with him through much of his adult life.
Zaal went on to rise through the ranks of the White Aryan Resistance, but turned away from the group after he discovered his young son using the N-word. He and Boger reconnected while volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance. It took some time before they recognized each other, but once they did, a remorseful Zaal and a still-traumatized Boger did not speak for weeks. But Boger reached out and forgave the man who had attacked him, and the two became close friends and colleagues, sharing their story publicly.
I’ve always felt that one of the greatest acts of compassion is to forgive, and this story reinforces that for me. I don’t know a single ally, mental health professional, or loving friend who would tell a person in that situation, dealing with that trauma, that they should extend a hand so warmly. But Boger did it, recognizing Zaal’s regret and acting radically to forgive the man who had caused him so much pain.
Hedy Epstein: Holocaust Survivor, Palestinian Rights Activist
With the possible exception of abortion, I have literally never seen an issue inspire more angry, visceral, or terrifying arguments than the issue of Israel and Palestine. Wherever you personally fall on the debate, I urge you to consider the sheer bravery and depth of compassion that Holocaust survivor turned Palestinian rights activist Hedy Epstein embodies.
Fleeing Germany in 1939 while still a teenager, Epstein (then Wachenheimer) lost almost her entire family in Auschwitz. After the war, she lent her aid to the Nuremburg trials before moving over to the United States, settling in St. Louis, Missouri, and taking up activism for affordable housing and the pro-choice and anti-war movements. You may recognize her from last August, when at 90 years old, she was arrested for “failure to disperse” at a St. Louis protest following the shooting of Mike Brown.
These resume points alone would make Epstein an inspiration, but it’s her work in Palestinian rights activism that showcases a level of radical compassion that I feel cannot be undermined. For her vocal criticism of collateral damage and defense of innocent civilians in the Gaza strip, she has been called disloyal, anti-Semitic, and a self-hating Jew by those within her own community. She has been threatened with legal action. Upon visiting Israel, she was strip-searched and referred to as a terrorist in what some would consider her homeland.
Still, she marches and works and does not tire seeking of seeking peace. Her compassion for those suffering at home and abroad, her use of a distinctly unique platform and perspective to advocate, her acting against the tide of other people’s expectations and even her own safety, are radical.
She’s funny too, by the way. Her response to the terrorist accusations was simply: “An 80-year-old woman is a terrorist? What, do I have a bomb in my vagina?”
The old adages are that teams are only as strong as their weakest members, chains by their weakest links. I’ve always found this attitude so defeatist, especially when looking at so nuanced and beautiful an act as compassion. Kindness has no lower depth. Our greatest assets in the quest towards a more compassionate, loving, and goodly culture should never focus on our failings, but rather treat our greatest examples as inspiration to do our own work. It is always imperfect, it may never feel like enough, but it is always courageous to stand, as these individuals have, to help and forgive and advocate in a radical manner.
[Headline image: The image shows an adult holding the hands of a child and kissing the child on the head. Both figures are in silhouette against an orange background with grass visible.]