Sunday, March 1, 2009

Compassion as Discipline

“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.” - HH, the Dalai Lama

Think of people as a cross between ants and marbles constantly moving in somewhat random patterns. A mass of movement, whirring about, jostling for position and direction going about our business of motion. Sometimes we bump into each other and those bumps impact direction and velocity. When we bump, it is a function of being in the right place at the right time to have whatever impact we do. We go about our days, bumping into other marbles in the checkout line, while making lane changes, and while making a living. Many contacts happen without us being aware of them, without thinking. People often have tunnel vision and are focused only on our own paths. The reality is, though, that the opportunity for real connection is always there, we simply must expect it from ourselves. Even amidst seemingly random patterns we can choose to forge bonds with each other, but we must be committed to seeing other people with compassion.

One day I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up a prescription. It was a gray, blustery day. Traffic in the parking lot was horrible, and I could see an even more frustrating backup while a car inexplicably sat in the way of any traffic in any direction. I hate that. I was not in the best of moods that day, and after I waited five long minutes I got out of my car and walked to the head of the line, which was now edging out into the street. I gestured at the driver and at that moment a man walked out of the store and headed over to the waiting car. He asked me what my problem was, and I said that I was going to ask her to move the car so the traffic could pass. I was on my best behavior, I was professional, pleasant, not at all nasty. I really didn't expect the vitriol that spewed from his mouth at me. I can't remember the details but I remember my reaction. Instead of flinching back I took a step forward, straightened my posture, stuck out my chin, and said his attack was unnecessary. He then said, "What are you going to do, hit me? You big dyke." Bizarre. I am anything but big. I am a little thing, even if I am strong, and I don't necessarily transmit dykeness, at least that is what folks tell me. I was really taken aback. I wondered why he chose to call me a dyke. Perhaps in his world women who don't back down to aggression are immediately dykes. I swear all this flashed through my brain, along with some odd fear that I look gay. I have never cared about looking gay, nor do I know what looking gay means. I said something vaguely insulting like I wouldn't want to catch your stupid, and he got in the car and they drove away.

I went back to my car, parked and walking inside. I was shaking, and almost in tears from some kind of weird fragile rage. An elderly gentlemen nodded at me as I walked in and I forced myself to smile back. I went to get my prescription, and he walked up. We started chatting, and I don't remember what he said to me, something about the weather and prescriptions - just small talk. He asked me if I was okay. I think he had seen the altercation, or maybe he just noticed me looking upset. I explained a bit of what happened, and he said you are too nice and smart a woman to let such rudeness shake you up. "If were younger I think I'd ask you out." So weird. Maybe that was his way of reassuring me about the whole wacky encounter. Maybe he didn't even see it. But his kindness and concern and reaching out to my, at that moment, very small sad self, touched me deeply. I don't know why. I'll bet he has forgotten that exchange, but I haven't. I remember it as a bright spot of human warmth during an ugly day.

Another time, in a long ago incarnation of me, I was again not at my best. I was young and new to St. Louis. I was taking classes and working full time, and was very fragile and bruised by life in general. One morning I was particularly overwhelmed in class. I had cut my hand very badly the night before, didn't have health insurance to get it stitched up, and was having the damnedest time. It didn't help that I had a manual transmission, and driving itself seemed like too much to handle. One fellow from the class came up to me as I was trying to juggle my books and get to my car. He asked me what the problem was, looked at the bandage job my friends and I had done and asked if I needed to go to the doctor. I told him no, I that didn't have health insurance. He said, "You really need to get that looked at, I'll drive you." His unexpected kindness undid my defenses. He drove me to a doc-in-the-box, ran me around town and generally took care of me that day. I ended up getting stitches; we ended up friends. Several times he just swooped in for no reason and did very kind things for me. He made a huge difference in my life time and again. I doubt that he knows how much his actions meant to me, though I have tried to tell him. We've become friends, and it is so easy to understand the significance of a friend. But I will always treasure the kindness that he showed before he knew me well, and see that as the measure of him as a person.

I can't count the number of times a few words shared with a stranger,or a surprise act of kindness, or an anonymous gesture of support have made a difference to me. They have taught me how easy it is to make an impact in the lives of those around us. The smallest acts of kindness can brighten a day. Large gestures aren't necessary to lift someone out of a painful rut.

If we see the folks around us as human beings, if we discipline ourselves to look with compassionate eyes we can touch and be touched so easily. It can be hard to reach out to someone you don't know well, or even to someone you do. Often folks often don't understand acts of generosity without a return for the giver, even if the gift is only a kind word. And it can feel risky to reach out. It can be just as scary to offer kindness as it is to receive it, but truly wonderful things can grow from the little seeds we sow. Instead of waiting to feel compassion - which is a passive stance, decide to be compassionate. Embracing compassion as a discipline instead of a feeling has helped me act with kindness when I couldn't before. One acts, instead of reacting, in relation to events or people or feelings. Choosing to act instead of reacting is itself centering and calming. People making that choice in a way that helps to build a world where compassion and kindness are not hoped for but expected – that is the world in which I want to live in. It is the world I choose right now.

Image is © Sean Gladwell |