Compassion and Sympathy, which one do we offer?

(first published by The Malaysian Insider on February 23, 2011)

FEB 23 – It wasn’t my initial intention to write when I first put myself in this situation, but the need came afterwards. I wrote because I was intrigued by my emotions, feelings and thoughts of the subject matter.

There I was, walking past a room full of drug users, most of them taking their afternoon nap in an open area in KL. Almost like a scene on a Raya afternoon, where your cousins are lounging after the heavy feast post Raya prayer in your Opah’s house, catching up with the Malay movies on TV.

As I walked, images and memories of my uncle came flashing in my mind. Those years when he was absent from our lives, whether he was in Pusat Serenti, or somewhere. He was what society would label as ‘sampah masyarakat’, victimised by their personal choices or life circumstances.

But who are we to judge the mistakes other made in their lives? We are all human, prone to mistakes. In a world where leaders, even the most well-known throughout the entire universe, make fatal mistakes that put thousands of lives in jeopardy and misery.

When I accepted an invitation to follow my friend Zashnain Zainal, who is a very experienced social worker, into the streets of Chow Kit, I didn’t know what was in store for me. All I knew was the excitement and rush I would get from the hallenings on the streets. I didn’t expect to walk into IKHLAS, a Drop-In Centre, where I would see, not just drug-users, but someone’s brother, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s husband, most of all, human beings who need a safe haven and a comforting support system.

This centre provides refuge for their ‘clients.’ Basic health care, harm prevention supports and most of all, a place where there’s sense of belonging. And the last part, is what we all search in life. Sense of belonging. Where we are accepted for who we are, for the choices we make, for the person we’ve become. These basic needs are the essential rights of all human beings, heck, for all creatures of the universe.

As I sat in the case workers’ office, I see clients coming in, one by one, either registering and exchanging old syringes for new ones, one of the harm prevention support provided by the centre. Everyone who came in, had their own story.

Although untold, you could see it from their faces. I sat and observed, and concluded, they were no less than me, a struggling young writer who was also making amends and dealing with her own circumstances, although in different ways, but carrying similar weight and burden.

I grew up loving my uncle. He was one of the first relatives I cried for when he passed away. As children, we knew he was a heroin addict, but we saw him as Paksu, one who would always kiss and hug us when we ‘balik kampung’ during Hari Raya.

One who would go to the bendang and bring back the fish he caught using ‘bubu’ at the paddy field’s water dam. He would pick up the ‘kelapa muda’ for us or cut those durians that we’ve been craving for. And even now, writing this, I’m shedding tears for missing him, since he left us in early 2000.

So are we offering compassion or sympathy for these people? I see people looking at drug users feeling disgusted, refusing to touch what they have touched, and at the end of the day, said something like, “Kesian dia,” almost in a degrading way. Sympathy, is all they can spare, because they refuse to give more, as if compassion is almost like wealth. Where one keeps but never gives.

Addiction comes in a lot of ways. Be it drug usage, alcohol, smoking, sex, chocolate, where the substance gives them a natural intoxicating high. If I want to be fair, bookworms are also addicts, because I know a few people who can never leave a bookstore without buying a book, regardless how many unread books piling in their rooms and libraries. How about those shopaholics who are piling up debts on their credit cards?

My point is, as human beings, we should offer compassion and understanding for others. I always tell people, the moment you stop judging people, people will stop judging you. Before I leave you to your own personal opinion, let me remind you of one story I’ve always think of when it comes to judgement.

The Prophet Muhammad s.a.w once told the story of a prostitute and a dog. The story goes like this where a dog was near a well and was about to die of thirst when a prostitute who saw the dog, took off her shoe and put water in it and gave it to the dog. And for her good deed, Allah Subhana wa taala forgave her.

And here we are calling people, ‘sampah masyarakat.’ Humanity, like common sense, is no longer common. Let us try to not make it extinct and bring back humanity to redefine back who we actually are.

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