Compassionate Transactions vs. Compassionate Relationships

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July 18, 2019 by thewashingteenian

By Jay Trovato, adult contributor and librarian


For most people, the sight of a man standing at an intersection with a cardboard sign instantly conjures up strong feelings of ambivalence and indecision. The sign says some version of the following: “I need help. Please help me. Thanks and God bless.” The light is red, the man is standing right outside the car window, and his eyes seem to be looking directly into your soul. As the seconds at the red light tick by, your discomfort grows to the point where you relent and give him a few dollars. He gives you a smile and a word of thanks. You drive on and feel better that you have done something good for someone down on their luck in the world.


In reality, he has just exploited you, and you have just exploited him.


What has just occurred could be called a “compassionate transaction.” A person expresses a need, and someone else responds by meeting the expressed need. There may be some limited situations in which this exchange might be appropriate and even transformative, but in most cases, compassionate transactions only perpetuate the status quo.


Think of it this way. Let’s imagine that you’re hungry and you walk into Domino’s to buy a pizza.  You give Domino’s your money, and Domino’s gives you a pizza. A business transaction has been completed, and both parties are satisfied. You walk out the door with a solution for your hunger during the next few hours, and Domino’s makes a profit on your purchase. There is no further relationship, nor a desire or expectation for one, between you and Domino’s. It is simply a mechanical exchange of money and goods.


Your encounter with the man at the intersection is the same. You’re in the position of Domino’s, offering him a resource that he wants. Money can buy him a pack of cigarettes, a cab ride, or some other item he needs at the moment. In return, he is paying you, although with a different form of currency than regular money.  Remember that feeling you had when you drove away after giving him a few bucks? “I’m a good person who helps the down-and-out of this world.” That’s your payment.


What, however, has concretely changed after this transaction is over? Suppose that tomorrow you see the same man standing in the same place holding the same cardboard sign. Does he still need help? Probably, but will you give it to him? What if you don’t?  Does that mean you’re no longer a decent and compassionate human being? In the final analysis, did either of you really benefit from yesterday’s exchange?


For decades, the model of giving to charity in the United States has been set up this way: people who have resources give money and goods, and people who don’t have resources receive them. The donors receive satisfaction from knowing how kind and good they are for giving, and the recipients continue their steady drumbeat of need. After so many years of following this model of charity, it is fair to ask whether anything has been gained. Have the millions of cans of food that have cycled through food pantries created independence and freedom for people in need? The answer is no. It has only perpetuated dependency and frustration for both sides of the transaction.


What if you had responded differently at the red light? What if you had (safely) pulled your car over and (safely) invited the man to walk to the coffee shop with you? Now the decision rests with the man, not with you. If he refuses, it shows that all he really wanted was to exploit you and get the material goods you offered him. However, if he accepts, and you spend time with him, something else has been created that could benefit both him and you: a relationship. Now you’re not seeing him simply as an object of charity to make you feel good, and he is not seeing you just as a way to get money for a bottle of iced tea.


This second option will be much more costly in terms of time and energy than just slipping a couple bills through a car window. But being intentional in forming a “compassionate relationship” with a person in need is the only way I know of to close the gap that traditional forms of charity cannot bridge. Both parties in a relationship give, and yet both have gained much more than they have given.


Human beings sit down at the table of friendship as equals.


Put simply, compassionate transactions create dependency, while compassionate relationships transform lives.

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