I don’t know about you, but a whole lot of the time, I lack compassion. It’s what we overstuffed Americans do, generally speaking.
Yeah, I go to church on Sundays. I meditate with the best of them. I have given hundreds of dollars to addicts with rain-soaked cardboard signs on street corners in Oakland.
But I still don’t know what it is to be compassionate … not really. I contend that in the Western world, we spend our lifetimes unlearning the innate compassion we are born with as babies.
Compassion is that ability to feel another’s pain, to know their suffering and to surrender to your own inclinations to give and give generously. We’re hard wired to do this — but it’s hard to get to if you’re squarely focused on yourself.
Several thousand times I’ve had the thought that I need to go teach incarcerated kids about writing. But have I?
Last summer I attended Anna Deavere Smith’s inspiring performance, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education. In the piece, Anna shared the various arguments to feed the school-to-prison pipeline for young African-American men in America.
During the show, there were two workshop-style breaks. Here small groups of audience members could brainstorm with a facilitator about how they could serve this high need population. At the end came a list of organizations who needed volunteers.
I leapt in eagerly. The next day I began the conversation with a local librarian who connects juvenile offenders with writers.
“Call me,” she exhorted.
I promised I would … but I didn’t.
Call it fear — fear of feeling vulnerable in front of a tough audience. Fear that I won’t say the right things, and make no difference at all. Even the fear my car would be broken in to.
But then there was the worst fear of all: my fear of being moved.
Oh, I told myself I was too busy to volunteer, but you and I know the real reason. It was the fear that got me. Underneath all of our accomplishment, our busy-ness and our day-to-day struggles, we are tender people. We feel each other so deeply, that it truly hurts to know another’s pain.
I have touched into that place from time to time in my life. Most memorably, perhaps, when I struck and killed a cat one night while driving on a rural road.
There was one house nearby, and I knocked on the door, the now dead cat in my arms. An elderly woman opened it.
I burst into tears, unable to say anything.
She looked at me and her dead cat, and she shook her head slowly. Stroking the cat, she said in the gentlest of voices, “So is this how you will go, old friend?”
Together we brought the cat in and lay its body down in the living room. She invited me to sit for a moment while I dried my tears. I explained the circumstances — that the cat darted out from a hedge just as I was passing by.
I was a teary mess throughout the conversation until finally I knew I had to leave.
“It’s okay,” she said evenly. “There was nothing you could have done.”
“No, nothing,” I affirmed. She patted my arm and we hugged. I was so moved by the old woman’s incredible grace and love.
Recently I read through my daughter’s posts on Facebook from the last year of her life. Scrolling down I was reminded how Teal embodied compassion. Nearly all of her posts were greetings to other people: encouragement, birthday wishes, exhorts to go have some fun together.
Then there was this shared quotation, paired with the picture above:
“When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him, you will see yourself. As you treat him, you will treat yourself. As you think of him, you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him you will find yourself or lose yourself.”
~ A Course in Miracles
What Teal understood so clearly through her whole life, and particularly in that last year and a half, was the incredible importance of people.
Just … people.
We are each other’s keepers, whether we know it or not. We will shape each other’s destinies, and open or close the abundant faucets of love. We will teach each other profound lessons, and inflict pain that is often life changing — even if we are capable of far better.
When we allow our love to be freely given, especially to those whom we would never ordinarily know, we love ourselves just a little more. This is why it feels so good to give abundantly.
In the course of writing this essay, I went back and found the email I had written to the librarian who works with incarcerated kids. Her number is now on my to-do list again … and this time I’m going to call her.
Once again I’m filled with hope that my love might overflow into someone else’s life, and I may do just a small bit of good in the world.
It feels good to love people again.
I am grateful for the chance.