Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We could try to fill bus driver's big shoes

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One of the big local stories of 2012, in my estimation, was about the Winnipeg bus driver Kris Doubledee, 38, who gave his shoes to a barefoot, homeless man. It was a spontaneous act of compassion that sent a glow through the city and made news across the continent. Doubledee was even invited to make a guest appearance on CBS This Morning in New York.

The gesture was so simple and yet so profound. Doubledee was so moved by the sight of a barefoot man the day before he made an instant heroic decision. He jumped off the bus and stripped off his own shoes, a dramatic message of how we must care for the poor and downtrodden.

Being compassionate is good for you. Be kind to others and you benefit yourself. Studies conducted at the University of California found that "women who demonstrated high levels of compassion toward others had lower blood pressure and cortisol levels allowing them to more easily handle stress and better maintain overall well-being."

We need more compassion in all forms of human endeavour. The world is a cruel place for millions who are subjected to civil war, exploitation in the workplace and for those who suffer weak and impoverished lives because they don't get enough to eat.

Compassion, according to Dictionary.com, is "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."

The Dalai Lama tells us: "Compassion is not religious business, it is human business; it is not a luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival."

When I think of compassion, I recall Beatrice St. Amant, a teacher who believed every child, no matter how severely impaired mentally and physically, should be treated with love and dignity.

When her son Gerry had to be removed from school because of a severe case of epilepsy, she decided to provide a haven for children whose needs were more than their parents could provide. A widower, she sold her home and bought an old farm house in Transcona to set up a school for disabled children. She was a pioneer in this cause and she fought against great odds with the help of the Sisters of Charity, the Grey Nuns. The children required constant care for they could not speak, walk, were incontinent and suffered from other ailments. The facilities were inadequate and funding was of a low standard. When I wrote a number of columns in 1954, the public responded with a flood of assistance. St. Amant's devotion brought about amazing improvements in the lives of the children. Today her memory endures in the respected St. Amant institution, the home built by compassion.

I recall celebrated British judge, Alfred Thompson Denning, known as Lord Denning, whom I interviewed 38 years ago. I had asked Lord Denning what attributes made a good judge.

He said that a judge should be patient, courteous, well-rounded and open minded, among other attributes. But he also emphasized compassion in the list. "A judge must be humane, compassionate, and understanding of the weaknesses of others."

I was surprised and heartened by his words. Judges, in the common image, follow the letter of the law in the strict and sober environment of the courtroom. Lord Denning gave a human dimension.

This human dimension is being denied today in new legislation by the Harper government in a phoney crackdown on crime when, in fact, crime has declined over the past 30 years. The new legislation imposes mandatory minimum sentences on a number of offences, depriving judges of dealing with the individual circumstances of the offender. Compassion is ruled out.

Civilization has been marked by war and turmoil and today there is a global unease, accelerated by rapid technological change. We need a kinder, softer outlook to counter the tensions of our times. We must put a human face on all deliberations.

Compassion, of course, won't cure the ills of the world, but it can only do good when people are concerned about others and the woes and tribulations of both strangers and friends. Compassion is contagious and all the participants feel the joy of its expression. Compassion makes us all feel interconnected and part of the human race.

Winnipeg has a reputation for being one of the top cities in Canada in the number of volunteers donating their time and energy freely to the community. The volunteer movement is laced with compassion and we need to recognize this wholesome feature in our city.

I receive a lot of compassion in my own life, from family, friends and the people working for home-care who make sure I get my pills and help with my other needs.

Aesop, Greek fable writer, said: "No act of kindness no matter how small is ever wasted." Smile at a stranger, put your arm on his shoulder, phone a friend who is housebound.

Everyone benefits from an act of compassion -- the giver, the receiver and the populous as a whole.

People in Tel Aviv and in London were talking about this Winnipeg transit driver who gave his shoes to a homeless stranger. It inspires others to do good things, a wonderful thought as we enter the year 2013.

Val Werier is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2013 A10

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