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“On Compassion” is an essay written by Barbara Lazear Ascher. The main argument of Ascher’s piece deals with acts of compassion, as well as the motives behind them. Ascher utilizes a somber tone, being a third party observer. She elaborates on different times she has witnessed various moments where someone is confronted with a possible, yet unlikely threat and reciprocated the threat with an act of kindness in order to question the true motives between these polite deeds- fear or compassion.
The first example Ascher states was a time when she witnessed an interaction between a woman with her child, and a homeless man in New York City. Ascher develops the story with the use of pathos, or emotional appeal to relay the scene of a the encounter. She writes; “The baby’s mother waits for the light to change and her hands close tighter on the stroller’s handle as she sees the man approach.” This wrenches at hearts, as the reader begins to feel sympathy for the homeless man; before this, the man was only walking the streets, pondering to himself. He stopped to admire the woman’s child. In a hasty effort, the woman offers the man a dollar in hopes he would leave; “…and passes a folded dollar over her child’s head to the man who stands and stares even though the light has changed…” For additional effect, Ascher mentions 5 bystanders that ignore the obvious and awkward tension, leaving the woman to fend for herself. The reader is then provoked into feeling pity for the homeless man, or anxiety for the woman- Ascher leaves both sides open for connection for her audience to develop an emotional connection between the reader and the man or the woman.
In her next scenario, Ascher expands on another instance she was a bystander in an encounter involving a homeless man. This time, the setting is in a cafe; she highlights the glitz of the cafe; the croissants are overly priced, and deliciously buttery. Ascher employs imagery to relay the scene; “… an old man has wandered in and stood inside the entrance. He wears a stained blanket pulled up to his chin, and a woolen hood pulled down to his gray, bushy eyebrows. As he stands, the scent of cigarettes and urine fills the small, overheated room.” The reader can visualize the man coming into the room, and can picture his awful odor, and suddenly feel compassion for this other homeless man as well. Ascher’s imagery makes the details of the man come to life, and how out of place he is in the french cafe, subtly implying the possible threat, or the innocent, hungry man he could be.
In many instances, people may react to different things in variying ways. The above are prime examples of various moments where one was confronted with a possible, yet unlikely threat and reacted with an act of kindness. In these cases, offering money or food in exchange for compliance, leaving the women alone. Ascher leaves the ends of the women’s ordeals open to interpretation by the reader, challenging the true motives between these gestures of kindness, and leaving the question resonating in her audience’s minds- were the acts because of fear or compassion?
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