The Eighteen Inch Journey

Children holding umbrella over dog in the rain
by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for January 24, 2016

A few weeks ago I was driving up the steep road that leads into the local Walmart parking lot.  Standing by the side of the road was a man holding a sign that read “Hungry and Homeless.”  And standing by his side was a rather sad-looking, scruffy little dog.  Though I wanted to offer the man a few dollars, I wasn’t able to pull over at that point because of the line of traffic behind me.  I decided to park first and then go into Walmart to buy some food for the man and his dog as I checked off the items on my own food shopping list.

When I came outside after about twenty minutes, I couldn’t find the homeless pair anywhere.  I was so disappointed, because I had a sandwich, beverage, cookies, and some other food supplies for the man and several cans of dog food for his companion.  I drove around the parking lot and an adjacent lot for about fifteen minutes and then decided my search was futile because the man must have moved on to another location.

Just as I was about to give up looking, I spotted him and waved to get his attention.  When I handed him the bag of groceries and the bag of dog food for his friend, he stood and stared at me in silence for what seemed a very, very long time.  I began to feel uncomfortable and wondered if I had offended him.  Just then he started to weep, and in between sobs, he told me he was utterly overwhelmed, because “Every person coming out of the store bought me food.  Me, a stranger.  They didn’t even know me.”  Choking back tears, he went on to say that, “Best of all, they bought food for my pup.”

After we finished chatting and I started the drive home, I kept reflecting on that man and his little dog.  I thought about the grace he had offered each of us, and how his presence and the presence of his companion had evoked something similar in an entire group of strangers.  What did each of us see, I wondered, that moved us to action?

Years ago I had heard that the average distance between a person’s head and a person’s heart is eighteen inches.  Not a very long stretch of space, is it?  But there are times when that distance might as well be the number of miles from Pennsylvania to China because what we see and think about doesn’t always make the move from our head to our heart.  It’s possible and in fact, it’s quite easy, to simply take in a scene and let it end there.  But we can also move beyond simply witnessing human need and enter into compassion, acting into the root meaning of that word—com, with, and passio, suffering—so that we enter into another’s experience and suffer along with them, feel their pain and accompany them.

In the jumble of musings on my drive home, I thought about the writer Henry James saying that there are but four rules in life—“Be kind, be kind, be kind, be kind.”  I thought about Pope Francis insisting that what is needed in our world today is a revolution of tenderness.  And I thought of Robert Carr asking, “Could it be that my aching for the anguish of the world is the feeling of my own heart being enlarged?”

That homeless man and his homeless dog are in my heart still, and I thank them for stretching my heart and expanding my worldview.  I thank them for challenging me to be open to the promptings of compassion and for inviting me and so many others to make that journey of eighteen inches.


What enlarges your heart?

Reflect on an experience you’ve had when what you saw or heard called you to make the journey from your head to your heart.

How have you been moved to action on behalf of someone in need?

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