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Tension between safety and compassion

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I am currently studying abroad in Oxford, where every morning I take a walk around the meadows behind the Stanford House. Almost every morning, sitting on a bench next to the river, sits a homeless man smoking a cigarette, grocery bags on either side of him. The meadow trail is sparsely populated at this time of morning, so it’s often just me and the man as far as one can see in any direction. 

Conscious of my small, young, feminine self, I at first walked on the path as far away from him as possible and doing my best to ignore him, trying not to draw attention to myself. With so much talk in the media about sexual assault and harassment, I saw this man as a potential threat to my safety. When he smiled and said good morning, I barely looked at him from the corner of my eye and offered only a silent half-smile in return. 

As the days passed by, though, I started to say good morning to this man. He never once moved from his seat, nor did his eyes follow me as I walked away. I still approach him a bit nervously, but I make sure to smile and give him my best. I feel a bit silly now to say I was afraid of him, and a bit prejudiced, too, for assuming he was a creep. 

The man on the bench made me more aware of the many other ways in which I avoid men who appear at all unkempt or unprofessional: staring at the ground, picking up my pace, looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being followed. I do this in the interest of safety, of course, but isn’t there a hint of bias there, a reverse-sexist classism I use to “other” people who make me uncomfortable?

I grew up believing that we should be kind to strangers, including those who are less fortunate than we are. I grew up believing that I should say hello to people regardless of whether or not they are wearing a fancy suit or dress. But I also grew up in a world rightfully concerned with keeping me, a petite 20-year-old woman, safe from harm. What ought we to do when these two imperatives conflict with one another? 

This applies not only to women, or young people, or people with clear social vulnerabilities, but to everyone living in an urban, violent, unpredictable world. We all contend with conflicting feelings about safety versus compassion and how we honor the humanity of others without risking our own life and health. Yet we almost never talk about this tension. We like to discuss universal compassion, and we like to discuss safety precautions, but we never bring them up in the same breath. 

This article is not an answer to that tension; it is rather a call for us to be more honest and thoughtful about the times in which we profile others in the service of our own safety and whether or not we’re doing that in a just way. It is a call for us to interrogate what feels threatening and how to redefine ideas about “being safe” that better align with “being kind.” It is not easy, but it is necessary not only for those we interact with, but for ourselves, too, since goodness given comes around as goodness received — a warm hello is rewarded with a warm hello. 

I am glad I’ve opened myself to my morning greetings with the man in the meadow. I feel lighter knowing that I’m acknowledging his humanity rather than ignoring it. I’d like to feel that way more of the time. 

Contact Avery at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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