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City of Strangers

When given the choice between exile and staying in Athens to face a death sentence, Socrates likely tried to imagine what it would be like to leave the city in which he was born and raised, whose every nook and cranny he knew so well, and enter wholly unfamiliar terrain.

    But in another respect, he no longer recognized it; he'd become a stranger in his own land. Most of: his own people were as unrecognizable to him as he to them, so different now were the values they had come to honor.

THE PRACTICE OF xenia was based on a sense of egalitarianism - that other people even in far-off places were deserving of the same respect and concern as one would afford one's nearest and dearest. But Athenians in Socrates', final years, to his dismay,came to see themselves as above others elsewhere - to the point that they came to believe it their right and even their manifest destiny to take whatever they desired from whomever they desired.

    "Being black isn't the reason for so. much crime; being bern into. a world where the odds are so. stacked against you is. If h~ really wants to. eliminate crime, people like him wouuld have to give up willingly a large chunk of what they have to. create a more level playing field."

    After a while, Harold says, "Compassion may be about trying to. put yourself in another's shoes, but the shoes never fit perfectly. No matter how compassionate you try to be, you'll never be perfectly compassionate, because you can never completely know what another person is going through, even if you've had a similar experience. It's the heartfelt attempt that matters."

    "I used to think I could judge how much, or whether, people were compassionate by how they treat their dogs;' Russell says. "But I've seen too many people treat their dogs better than they treat people."

    "I, on the other hand, treated this dog pretty badly once upon a time. I used to give this little fell a here the cold shoulder;' he says as he caresses what has to be one of the scrawniest and most pathetic-looking - not to mention deliriously happy-dogs I've ever seen. "Buddy here waited patiently at my doorstep, as if he knew I'd come around eventually.

    "He was on the verge of starving. I actually thought the most 'compassionate' thing to do would be to have him put to sleep. Buddy seemed to think I was made of better, more loving stuff than I realized. Why would I take this scraggly little thing into my life? This was not my idea of a dog. But I was his idea of a dog owner. He wore me down and won me over.

    "He's my best friend. He knows my moods before I know them, and knows how to act accordingly. This dog is all about compassion. If, before I die, I can be half as compassionate as he is innately, I'll be all right. He may be a tiny fellow, but he has the biggest heart of anyone I know."

    He squeezes Russell's shoulder. The genuine affection between the two is palpable. Russell says, "Never again will I think that compassion is just a one-way street. It's a many-way street. The Andrewses have been so considerate of us and our own needs."

    "We treat their home like we would ours-better, really, since we don't leave any dirty clothes lying around," Harold tells me. "We try to give them their space. As their guests, we also have to imagine what it's like to be in their shoes, what it's like for them to have opened their home to strangers, and so be extra considerate towards them."

    "So compassion has to have a give-and-take reciprocity to it?" I ask.

    ''Absolutely,” says Russell. "But not the quid pro quo type, where if someone does something for you, you have to do something of equal measure for them. It requires that all involved in the 'compassion transaction' be considerate of the needs of one another."

    "Does someone have to have suffered to some degree like you have to show you the type of compassion you need?" I ask.

    "Abolitionists helped my ancestors gain freedom,” Harold says.

    "They hid them from slave owners and trackers and helped them escape in the underground railroad, even though they had no direct sense of slaves' experience, of the brutality and torture. What they did have was that sense of 'there but for the grace of God go I.' It takes 'compassionate imagination' for them to realize that but for the accident of birth, that could just as well have been them."

    "That's lacking in Bill Bennett, the former secretary of education," Russell says now. "He said on a radio program that even though it'd be morally reprehensible, if you wanted to dramatically curb or even eliminate crime, just abort black babies. That statement betrays an absolute lack of ability to imagine in a way that'd give you an inkling of the black experience in the U.S. since our slave days.

    "When I saw the images on TV, in the aftermath of Katrina, saw

how so many, especially blacks, were left to fend for themselves, I had to do something. I was shocked that the richest nation on Earth was .treating its own like second-class citizens. I notified one of the relief agencies that my home was available. I got no response. So I began calling friends, then friends of friends, who might know of someone in need, Finally, I got a call from a man - Harold here - who said he was about to be bussed to the Houston Astrodome, and that they might separate his family. The relief in his voice when I told him there was plenty of room at our home oozed through the phone.”

    "We were shy about accepting;' says Harold, "but you overcome shyness real quick when you're in straits like ours. Just the thought of having a real roof over our heads, a real bed to sleep in, a real bath-

room ... paradise.”

    "My kids were excited;' Russell tells me. "They missed having

someone in those vacant rooms to play with and take care of since their grandmomma passed.

    "For me," he soon goes on, "it was the easiest thing in the world to

be compassionate the first days. It's when you realize the strangers you've welcomed into your home are here for a good while that you're put to the test. My kids have shown more caring and hospitality as time passes. They've taught me more about compassion as a longterm gesture."

    "We haven't once been made to feel unwelcome, that they wish they could take back their generous invitation,” says Harold. "Compassion to me is understanding, empathy, grace, love, all put together. That's what the Kelly family is made of. It's like, every day when they wake up, they imagine what it's like to be in our shoes, and they treat

us accordingly."

excerpted from Socrates In Love from Page 148 :

City of Strangerly Love

"Somewhere along the way, someone has to teach you, or you have to teach yourself, the lesson of ' there but for the grace of God go I,''' says Russell in response to my question "Can compassion be taught?"

    "I was taught compassion by those who lacked it," he goes on between sips from a huge mug of coffee. "I grew up in the other Philly -Philadelphia, Mississippi-during the civil rights struggle. I saw how horribly some whites treated blacks, and I decided that if I were ever in a position of power or pull over the poor and vulnerable, I'd be the opposite of these whites-a force for good and compassion."

    We're at a coffee house within sight of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Russell and I had been corresponding ever since I visited Philadelphia to hold a dialogue several years earlier.

    "Philadelphia is Greek for 'City of Brotherly Love,''' says his friend Harold. "While the Philadelphia of the Deep South didn't live up to its name, this one sure does, thanks to people like Russell. I thought I knew all there was to know about compassion. But it wasn't until Hurricane Katrina that, at the ripe old age of forty-nine, I really learned about it.

    "Russell and his family didn't know us from Adam, yet they took in me and my wife and three kids, no questions asked. They've showered us with the kind of hospitality we might expect from our closest relatives on Thanksgiving. They've given a whole new meaning to the saying Mi casa es tu casa."

    Russell shrugs off the compliment, seeming uncomfortable with such high praise. "This could have been us;' he says simply. "To learn compassion, you have to have humility. I know that tomorrow, or the next day, it might be Harold's or someone else's turn to extend to me

and my family a helping hand.

Varieties of Love
Listen to Chris Phillips on Philosophy Talk, on his new book, Socrates In Love.