Cultivating Compassion

I listened to my eighth-grader chatting with his friends during carpool yesterday. They were talking about the Muslim ban. My son and one of his friends were commenting on how “dumb” and poorly carried out it was. The third friend argued the executive order was constitutional. “Imagine if someone gave you had a box of Skittles and you knew two of those Skittles were poisoned,” he proposed. “Would you still take the box?” He is a pretty smart kid and the argument made sense on its face. Would you put millions of people’s lives at risk if you knew there was a chance a terrorist would come in with refugees? “You mean more like 2 poisoned Skittles out of 300,000” retorted my son. Fair point. I made a conscious effort to refrain from commenting as their not so friendly banter continued. What fascinated me about the conversation was that they were each missing a major element – the fact that there were real people in the story.

The words compassion and kindness are being used frequently lately.  Given the current social and political climate, it’s no surprise people are gravitating toward these values. Certainly we could all use some kindness, both as receivers and givers. To feel compassion is usually a prerequisite to offering kindness, especially when it is given to a stranger or perhaps someone we don’t particularly agree with or like.  Is the ability to feel compassion a trait we are born with, akin to our capacity to love? Or is this more of a learned skill?  To a certain extent, I believe all humans are born with this ability. I also think that if we don’t cultivate it, it stagnates and, eventually dies.  Like love, it is both an innate feeling as well as a conscious act. If we want more compassion, and ultimately, more kindness – how do we create or enhance our ability to feel it?

We have all experienced those moments when certain images tug at our heartstrings. Anyone who has watched infomercials about abandoned pets or orphans living in poverty and found themselves teary eyed can attest to that. We may even have stopped and sent a monetary contribution. For the most part, however, we go back to our lives and never take any action. Even when the news shows unspeakable tragedy, we are at best paralyzed by our sense of powerlessness or at worst numb to a stranger’s suffering. Other times, we have situations when we are decidedly not compassionate. We ignore the homeless man asking for change, dismissing him as an addict. Does this happen because we are at heart unkind, harsh people? I don’t think so. I believe one major reason is that at those times we lack empathy – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Without empathy, it is almost impossible to understand others who we perceive as different and separate from us. Empathy is what gives us the ability to take ourselves out of our limited experience and begin to understand another’s point of view, motivations and suffering. In a sense, it is what connects us to each other when there is no other common denominator. Of course, this is easier said than done. Particularly, when we deal with others with whom we may have nothing at all in common or who may act in ways that offend us or go against our personal rules. How can we feel empathy towards someone who we know nothing about? This is where the power of a story comes in.  Stories are a very effective tool for teaching and empathy is a skill that can be learned.  A story can transform you from passive observer to emotionally invested. You may forget the news about a bombing in the Middle East minutes after you turn off your tv but an in-depth story about a young boy who is the only family member to survive the attack may haunt you for days.

In thinking about my own experience, I can say that certain stories I have read have made me feel connected to strangers and, have even completely changed my opinions. They have helped me feel less separate. Here is a list of books whose stories have helped me become less judgemental, more compassionate, and ultimately, kinder:

  1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – the character in this novel is a girl born a hermaphrodite who comes of age feeling trapped in the body of a girl. I probably would have not picked it up if I’d known the topic.  By the time I figured it out, I’d already become invested in the character. Eventually, it is a story about love and the courage to live in truth. I don’t personally know any transgender individuals but I find myself unable to judge them because I picture this character.
  2. The Gold Finch by Donna Tartt- this is one of the most beautifully written, heartbreaking stories I’ve read, about a young boy who experiences a horrible loss and grows up to become a functioning drug addict. Reading novel makes it almost impossible not to understand how anyone in emotional pain can fall victim to addiction. I can never look at another addict without wondering about the events that led them down that path.
  3. Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol – my college freshman sociology professor made this book part of his course.  It was filled with real stories about families and individuals who found themselves homeless and their frustrating journey out of the system. What I found sobering about these stories is how close many people are to losing it all. One homeless family lost their home and possessions in a house fire. As a result of reading this book, I have include this cause in my charitable contributions for years.

While stories told through books have been connecting humanity for centuries, movies and documentaries are also wonderful at conveying stories.  Whatever medium appeals to you, exposing yourself to stories is an easy and enjoyable way to find common ground with those we don’t normally identify with.

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