The Many Shades of Compassion

I’m in the north Bronx waiting to board the Number 4 subway train to midtown Manhattan for class at the Jung Center on dreams and spirituality. This is the Bronx and I can’t ignore all the media coverage about the five hundred-plus knife attacks in the city since January 1st, many taking place in the Bronx on or around subways.

My companion and I park ourselves at the end of the car close to the exit doors. I think in passing about what the pathology is of a knife attack. The victims the media tend to cover are women who have been slashed across the face. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to consider these actions an attack on the feminine. New York City is full of these abominations. I think about the rage and fury that must provoke these intensely personal crimes aimed at the face, the very image of the self that must be managed and portrayed within the social constraints women confront daily in an often dangerous city.

I look at the man sitting across from me on the subway. He is huddled in a corner of the car; a torn Nike bag and a stuffed pillow case are nestled under his right elbow. The man, who could be fifty or seventy, is wearing an oversized and worn, dirty New York Giants jacket. I recalled seeing a video about a homeless man wearing a San Francisco Forty-Niners jacket who was prompted by some teenage thugs to pour lighter fluid over his head for five dollars. The football team heard about this and sent him a new jacket and game tickets, I think. I don’t know what to do with this analogy.

I guess the man across from me lives on the subway. He sleeps for most of the forty-five minute trip to Grand Central Station. I think about leaving him some money. I think about inviting him out for a shave and breakfast. I tell myself that I give to plenty of charities and leave it at that. Then I enter another world.

The instructor in Jungian psychology reads a quote that suggests “god” can be anything that awakes us psychologically. I suggest we have to get past the historical weight and violence of monotheistic religions if we are to get to that psychological position. I am showing off. The teacher seems interested in getting to a softer spirituality.

A theology professor mentioned that his students are moving away from dogma and a literal reading of the bible. He said that his students treat the Old Testament prophets as fictional characters molded in an unconscious age. He got a laugh when he said that the only book that should be read literally is the phone book.

The instructor asks someone to share a dream with the class. A woman volunteers and we close our eyes and listen. In her dream, she is on a path watching a faceless man dressed in what looks like a monk’s garb come toward her. She notes that he stumbled three times. The “dreamer” said that she began to feel agitated, as if she were bothered by the man’s presence. She noticed an umbrella handle on the path. When he got within arm’s reach, the faceless man anointed her with the sign of the cross.

The class came alive with references to Christ’s crucifixion, his stumbling under the weight of the cross, the betrayal, and the despair and loneliness in this archetypal story. Someone remembered that Ash Wednesday was recently on the calendar. Someone else suggested that, since the umbrella was not open, the dreamer was not prepared for bad weather.

The woman, a lawyer, said that on the day after the dream she successfully won a court case that she had “stumbled” through for three months. After that success she felt blessed. She thanked the class for helping her amplify the dream. The lawyer said she had learned something about compassion.

My companion and I are back on the train. I am watching a well-dressed woman coddle an English cocker spaniel wrapped in the Union Jack. I notice an elderly gentleman, stooped and using a cane, gets on at East 59th street in Manhattan. A man dressed as a postal worker immediately offers his seat to the elderly man who has a rolled, homemade, unlit cigarette in his mouth.

He tries to get the attention of the cocker spaniel that is now on a leash on a deck of the subway car. I can see his owner pulling tight on the leash, presumably to keep him away from the man. But he continues to talk to the dog through his unlit cigarette. The dog remains tense and curious. When the woman leaves the car at 86th in the Upper East Side the man says she shouldn’t have worried. He wouldn’t have given her dog a cigarette. She said she wasn’t worried.

At 125th Street, a woman with a small child and a full grocery cart boards the Number 4 train. She opens a bag of what appears to be chocolate covered pretzels. The man asks her if he could buy a bag of pretzels. I notice that, after the transaction, he shoves a fistful of one and five dollar bills into his jean pocket. For some reason, I was concerned about his safety.

The man offers the bag of pretzels to the small child, who takes one after a nod from his mother. The elderly man makes faces and tries to amuse the child for the next three subway stops. There is a garbled announcement by the train conductor about the train bypassing some stops. The man leaves the train in a hurry. I hope he hasn’t missed his stop.

That night, I dream about a crucifixion. A young man is tied to a cross made out of 2x4’s. The cross is placed in the crook of an old, dying tree. A small branch with a few leaves partially obscures his face. Later, I realize that the tree looks like a half-dead tulip tree outside my office window.

For some reason I feel compelled to go to this man. I stand on a log, hold his hand and speak to him. The more we speak, the more relaxed and gentle he becomes. There is no sense of violence or death. The feel of the dream suggests it was more about the man being left alone and abandoned.

The dream is about compassion.