Monday, February 28, 2011

everyday compassion

I've been thinking a lot about this idea of compassion lately. It's partly due to viewing/listening to this TED Talk and also just recently having seen "A Mighty Heart" (I know, I know... I'm so out of the loop when it comes to movies), the film version of Mariane Pearl's memoir of the kidnapping and death of her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl. In an interview after her husband's death, Pearl said, "They are suffering too." It gave me goosebumps. What a compassionate response from someone who has been in the midst of great tragedy, violence, and hate. Pearl also talked about how she wanted to continue "creating dialogue" between people. As sad as the story was, I was left with a sense of hope and optimism.

The dictionary defines compassion as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." (thanks, Compassion is not the same as pity, which is more like a "oh, that's too bad" response. Compassion prompts us to take action.

In this TED Talk, Krista Tippett talked about reconnecting with compassion, in an everyday way. Compassion doesn't just come from heroic people you read about in the news. And I would agree with that - because if compassion only happens in these large-scale, newsworthy world events, then I would say that we are in great trouble. Because it's also our everyday actions that make an impact. The small actions that can easily go unnoticed, cumulatively make a world of difference. It's not that the acts of compassion by national heroes and spiritual leaders are unimportant; they are important and inspiring, as they are examples of the human spirit.

But the reality is not all of us are in that role. So we practice compassion away from any spotlight, without any headlines. We practice compassion toward the mother in a grocery store whose child is crying in distress due to being in an unfamiliar and perhaps overstimulating environment, and we not only suspend judgment but let this mother go ahead through the checkout line. We practice compassion when we drop whatever we are doing to take a friend to the hospital. What would happen if none of us did any of these small actions on a day to day level? What would happen if we just said, "oh that's too bad" and then moved on?

I've definitely been on the receiving end of other people's compassion in very unexpected ways. In my first year of teaching back home, I made a decision that I'm not proud of. And this student's mother, who could have very well been irate, instead responded with a rare kind of understanding, kindness, and compassion. Her actions taught me a great lesson, one I carry with me to this very day; a lesson which has shaped my beliefs as a teacher and inspired me to advocate for children and families in my work. So I think that what sets compassion apart is that it is more than just an emotion. It involves action from the giver, and I would assert that it also encourages future action from the receiver. And it is in action that we truly work towards peace.

On a smaller, more personal scale, A. was initially concerned about what his extended family's response will be to me, a person of different national, cultural, and religious origins and upbringing. He talked to his grandmother recently, who said in response to his concern: "A human being is a human being." This coming from someone who has never met me, who probably has not had any exposure to someone like me, yet suspended judgment about my background and instead affirmed my personhood. How's that for everyday kindness and acceptance?

What acts of everyday compassion have you received?

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