Compassion

COMPASSION

May you be gentle with yourself and others.  May you forgive those who hurt you and yourself when you make mistakes.

“The kindness one.”  I remember the first time I heard that phrase.

It was in Tucson at Casa de los Ninos, which is a children’s home.  It was before the Polished Stone Tour. I had just begun to visit schools and residential facilities in my home state of Arizona, reading and discussing The Twelve Gifts of Birth with children.  Sitting in a Kindergarten-sized wooden chair, I faced ten attentive little boys sitting on the floor in a semi-circle in front of me.

Completing the story I asked, “What gift seems most important to you? Do you have a favorite one?”

“The kindness one!” chimed the youngest boy. “The kindness one!” he said again with enthusiasm, raising his chin from its resting place on his fists and stretching tall from his crossed-ankles position.  He didn’t yet know the word “compassion” but he knew what it meant and he recognized it as the most important gift from his four-year-old perspective.  Yes, he was only four; yet he had a strong sense of what compassion looks like and feels like when he recognized gentleness and caring between brothers in one of the book’s photos.

A few months later I heard it again: the kindness one.

It was in a third-grade class in Denver, Colorado, not far from Littleton, at the start of the new school year, just four months after the Columbine shootings.  After listening to the story and hearing the question, “What gift seems most important to you?” without hesitation a seven-year-old boy answered, “the kindness one.”

Throughout the Polished Stone Tour, many young children chose compassion–  either by naming “compassion” or calling it “the kindness one”–as the gift they thought was most important.

When I recall those children, I experience appreciation and awe for their innate wisdom. I have often wondered how many acts of violence could have been prevented if only “the kindness one” had been prized, praised, and cultivated in those who committed the acts, if only they had experienced more kindness in their lives, if only they were helped to understand that we all, at times, experience deep emotional pain.

That leads me to think of Margaret from Pennsylvania who told me about an experience she had in her early twenties.  One day, during a time of depression and uncertainty, she suddenly realized that everyone who is now living, as well as everyone who has ever lived, had a sense of how she felt because they too have felt emotional pain and confusion.

“In that moment, I became aware that thousands, millions, maybe a billion, maybe billions of people on the planet were hurting in some way right then, at the same time as I was,” she said.  “Even though they did not know me personally, they knew how I felt and I knew how they felt…not exactly, but we all knew pain.  In that moment, my heart burst open.  I felt compassion for them and compassion for me.  I try to remember that whenever I sink into depression and feel alone in my own sadness.  It helps me to be kinder to myself and to others.”

A quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow deepens the invitation to open up, with understanding and care, to others: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Kathy from Illinois is another shining example for me.  Her personal story serves as a reminder to watch for all the little hostilities and negative judgments that pop up every day and turn them into opportunities to grow in kindness and compassion.

“For years I hated myself,” she said.  “Early in my childhood I got the impression that I was unloved and unlovable.  There were so many situations during my growing up years that stirred feelings of shame in me.  My dad drank, my mom had an affair with a neighbor; my parents divorced, my mom married the neighbor, to name a few.  Like many children in unhappy homes, I misunderstood and felt that I was somehow to blame.”

Little by little, through reading, counseling, retreats, and educational programs, Kathy learned to let go of the negative judgments she had of herself–and of her parents–and to heal.

“I finally got it,” Kathy said.  “Not just the intellectual concept that none of it was my ‘fault.’ I started to feel genuine love, tenderness and kindness toward Little Kathy, teenage Kathy, young adult Kathy, me in all my stages, and me now.  I saw how I had been holding false and limiting beliefs about myself.  And I let them go.  I’m still letting them go. Whenever I catch myself falling into an old pattern of self-criticism, I stop, forgive myself, and deliberately speak kindly to Little Kathy…who still hurts sometimes…and to me now.”

Kathy has also fully forgiven her parents.

“Actually, I have forgiven myself for judging them as bad parents, and, as a result, freedom, peace, and joy have come to me,” she said.  “The truth is: my parents were doing the best they could at the time.  They were hurting too.  My intention now is to accept myself and everyone else just as we are.

That’s my intention too. A personal memory of comparing two of my relatives is one of my own touchstones for the gift of compassion; a particular scene reminds me to be gentle, accepting, and to refrain from judgments.

Way back when my daughters were in elementary school, more than 25 years ago, I noticed a difference in the way one of my husband’s uncles and one of my uncles treated the children in our families.  My uncle, Ray, paid close attention to what even very young children said. He genuinely enjoyed playing checkers and other games, engaging in paddle ball contests, and watching our children as they proudly performed a newly-learned skill, such as twirling a baton.  My husband’s uncle, Spike, did not relate as well to children. In fact, sometimes he was dismissive and gruff toward them.  And, I judged him in this regard as “not good enough.”

One summer day we had a serious plumbing problem in our home. The basement in our century-old Victorian farmhouse was filled with sewage back-up. As soon as he heard about it, Uncle Spike showed up in hip boots, prepared to help drain and clean the basement. He showed no reluctance or reservation about dealing with the mess and the stench.  Again, I compared the uncles.  What I saw led me closer to accepting and appreciating people as they are. While my Uncle Ray was great with kids, he could not fix a thing and he would not have been willing to enter that basement and try.  The memory of Uncle Spike in his hip boots reminds me that we all have different skills and personalities. We all have different strengths and weaknesses.  We are all doing our best.  We all have a lot to learn.

Both uncles have passed on.  As I write this, Uncle Ray has been gone for two years; Uncle Spike died just two days ago.

Like this memory of my uncles and the stories from Margaret and Kathy, a song by Mark Stanton Welch encourages me to let go of judgments, to accept myself and others as we are, and to be kind. Here is a portion of the lyrics:

Love the One You’re With

… A man is seeking money
He is living on the street
I see his sign and judge
Thinking he’ll drink instead of eat
I start to turn the corner when I turn to see his face
I see the God within him, I place 20 on his plate

Throughout the day they come
Moments meant for me
Throughout the day life lays them at my feet
She says, “Have compassion”
She says, “Take the risk”
She says, “Go on and love the one you’re with”

A spider in the bathtub
A fly upon the wall
A traffic jam, the couple, fighting
Somewhere down the hall
The man who cut before me
The waitress late and rude
Within these golden moments
Lies a fundamental truth

To get the love I want
I must give the love I seek
As I do for you, my friend
Someone will do for me
These laws of love are written
They’re embedded in the heart
So what stands right here before me
Is the perfect place to start…

Copyright 2000 Mark Stanton Welch
From the CD, True Balance

For reflection, journaling and discussion:

1. Recall a time when your heart opened and you felt compassion for yourself. Someone else.
2. Did you act upon it in some way?  How do you feel as you remember it?
3. In what ways do you presently show kindness to yourself?
4. What judgments about yourself and others, if any, are you ready to release?