One of the many synonyms for the word compassion is humanity—the quality of being human. I recall a conversation with a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had served previously in Senegal, Africa. He told me the Senegalese do not say thank you for common courtesies. Even though this RPCV is a westerner, he did not consider this lack of thanks rude, in fact he didn’t see the need to say thanks for something as basic as, say, a drink of water. He said, “I give you a drink of water because you are human and I am human. That is reason enough.”
Humans, generally speaking, care about each other. We don’t think twice about small courtesies, even with people we don’t know. Holding the door for someone carrying groceries, or giving an umbrella to a stranger in the rain, putting a dollar bill in the hat of a homeless person are spontaneous gestures of compassion towards are own fellows. We walk away whistling, pleased with ourselves for our own humanity. And yet, we also want credit for our good deeds. I do: a tax credit, an engraved brick on the donor’s wall, or at least a merit badge.
The other day I cleaned the bathroom at my host family’s home. Five of us use that water closet with the tiled cistern of cold water, hand-held sprayer, and toilet that flushes with a bucket. I waited till my host mother was at the market and sister off to school to get in there with bleach and a scoring pad. I wanted it to be a surprise—but also, not so secretly, wanted them to know I was the one who did the good deed. The final touch was a fresh cake of new soap to replace the crusty old brown nub. I was proud of myself for my selfless service.
No one said a word. They must have noticed. The soap was used. I expect others in the family enjoyed the clean bathroom as much as I did. Curiously, I was disappointed. I wanted to be praised and loved for my selfless service. More than that, I wanted extra credit. Then I remembered my friend’s words about unnecessary thanks, and how basic courtesies are simply an act of humanity. It’s not that special. I prefer a clean bathroom, the same as you. That should be reason enough.