Updated: Sep 13, 2020
“We are all different. Don’t judge, understand instead.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
What prevents us from choosing compassion more regularly in our lives? In reflecting on my own journey with this question, I’m routinely reminded of the work I’ve done in mental health. As a therapist I have come to know many “ordinary” people in the rooms I’ve worked. People from disparate social, ethnic, economic, & political persuasions. These women, men, and children, who on the surface seemed like well functioning members of society, often housed within themselves stories of troubled lives. They would share their hopes, pains, and regrets in confidential spaces for 50 minute intervals, and then would leave into the anonymity guaranteed to them by the outside world. Few if any would know of the emotional weight they carried as they went about their lives.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
I would often leave the office with echoes of their voices still lingering in my mind. Hoping that the safety and acceptance they found in the therapy room would eventually translate into their personal lives. Their stories followed me where I went, acting as gentle reminders that all around us are people who struggle in silence. These were cashiers at the local store, stay at home moms, businessmen stuck in rush hour traffic, and kids in schools. The everyday person who we pass on the street without much thought. And yet as different as they were from one another, within all of their stories spun the universal thread of wanting to be happy, to feel heard, acknowledged, and understood by those in their lives.
A random act of kindness, no matter how small, can make a tremendous impact on someone else's life.”
― Roy T. Bennett
With this added lens into people’s lives, there came increased responsibility to make efforts (not always successful ones), to choose compassion and understanding in daily interactions. It could begin simply as a morning ritual of sorts; gently reminding oneself that people are doing the best that they can. And that underneath their many layers lies a person with similar goodness, fears, insecurities, and dreams as you.
Something as trivial as greeting a stranger with a smile, or choosing not to react to another’s aggression, could go a long way to counter the disconnect, anger, and pain that have found such fertile ground these days.
It could be a daily challenge to oneself to meet people where they are at, and receiving them regardless of their missteps. Because at the end of the day, what many of us need is for someone to simply hear us, and to bear witness to the suffering that we often veil with our anger. One wonders how our society and landscape would change if we allowed ourselves to receive another’s voice in a way that regularly acknowledged them as people.
“The major dilemma is that we tend to listen to reply, while all we should do is: listen to understand and feel.”
― Akilnathan Logeswaran
One final consideration on the journey to more compassion may be the most important one; to what degree have each of us acknowledged our own internal pains? Oftentimes the wounded amongst us have a tendency of transmitting our pain onto others in our lives. The familiar interpersonal dance of “I hurt so you should hurt too,” gets replayed over and over again all around us. Though stopping this dance requires a specific degree of vulnerability and bravery. When we feel unheard and misunderstood by another, we want to ignore that pain inside of ourselves, bury it in rage, to not allow the other person to see that we are hurt. And yet it is often through voicing the underlying pain that deeper connection is made. Having compassion for that hurt part of you can acknowledge your true needs in that moment and increase the likelihood that those needs are met. But when we angrily react and attempt to hurt another as a means of protecting ourselves, that internal pain that needed recognition remains in the dark, and unacknowledged. The challenge lies in putting words to what’s going on inside of us in the moment. This process begins by noticing & recognizing what anger and other emotions feel like inside of our bodies; once we notice them we can begin to put the appropriate words to what we’re experiencing. Compassion begins with witnessing those experiences.
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
―Jack Kornfield,Buddha's Little Instruction Book