Compassion: Transforming Good for Nothing into Good for Something in You

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Sixty-Four

“The problem in the world is that we have forgotten that we all belong to each other” Mother Teresa

On a hot summer day in Charleston, South Carolina the temperature was approaching 95 degrees with typical Carolina humidity. It was miserable. To make the misery worse I was selling Bible books for the Southwestern book company. This took misery to a new level. In truth, I wasn’t selling any books.  I couldn’t give them away. I was a college kid with aspirations to make money for college in order to go back to school in the fall. It wasn’t working. I was in a bad slump. I had gone three days straight, working from 8am to 10pm, giving 40 presentations every day and I had not sold 1 stinking Bible book!  I was 0 for 120- a real slump in anybody’s book. I was not an atheist, but, honestly on that hot day I was thinking about it.

It was about 5pm in the afternoon. I was in tears, conjuring up the foulest profanity I could think of to curse the day I decided to do this work. 

As fate would have it, I stumbled onto the porch of Mrs. Gilley. She lived in the last house I visited on that most difficult day. She was a retired school teacher who I later learned had been watching me all afternoon going from door to door in her neighborhood. When I brought my closed heart to her front porch, she greeted me with an open heart of absolute total acceptance. 

Like a robot, I immediately went to my rote introductory spiel. Yet, before I finished the first sentence, she opened the door and whisked me into her home. She already had a check made out for the $45.80—the amount that the entire library cost at that time. To this day I have no idea how she knew the cost for the books. She told me to keep the books and give them to some other family. She said she suffered from cataracts and could not read and did not believe in God anyway. 

She insisted that I sit down for a dinner that she had prepared just for me. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t recall when I had ever been so famished. She told me one story after another about her experiences as a teacher. She talked about kids who excelled in the classroom and were later tragic failures. She talked about kids who were failures in her class but later became very successful and those who never had a chance. Later her husband came home from work. He worked in the shipyards. He, too, was overwhelmingly hospitable. He had the idea to get out homemade ice cream maker and made delicious ice cream. We all had some and I ate my share plus the shares for the two other guys who never came.  I left that night with my stomach so full. My stomach wasn’t the only thing that was filled; so too was my heart. This little woman’s kindness and spirit opened my heart to the possibility of transforming an average moment of discouragement and failure into the unknown promise of an open heart. Mrs. Gilley had underscored the transformative value of compassion with so much understanding. It would be nice to share that I left Mrs. Gilley’s home and went on an inspired hot streak of sales. But I didn’t. I struggled the entire summer with dismal results. What I did embrace was a deeper understanding of the common ordinary experience of the magic in humanity which occurs through the healing power of compassion. 

Compassion is a known word that with many meanings and applications. Everybody has an understanding of what it means and an experience of someone else’s compassion toward them or how they extended it to someone else. Its presence is always warm. Compassion highlights the importance of open hearted living. It fosters the basic innate goodness of every person. Compassion is the lubrication in life that helps to shift from judgment to acceptance of individuals and situations that irritate and annoy. It asks the question “how can I alleviate the human suffering in the everyday trenches of human living?” It answers the question “What kind of community do I want to live in?” with a deep desire to relieve human suffering and a driving desire to make things right for those who have less material possession and less privilege. Compassion answers these questions from a deeper place than what does polarized bias. In a divided world of us and them. haves and have nots, the 1% and the other 99%, white privilege and people of color, compassion can be a healing bridge of connection among all. Here are a few considerations to help cultivate this much needed characteristic:

1. Embrace a vision of alliance and kindred spirit.

It all begins with me. It is difficult to show compassion toward others if you have none toward yourself. To know that your life matters to you and another person and then treat others that they matter too, is divine. When compassion is meted out proportionately to self and others, life becomes very peaceful. The task of taking what is in life and making it enough become very clear. Compassion is the secret to becoming at peace with yourself and the world around you. It helps you to see the innate goodness of life and every person around you. 

2. Practice being tender to yourself, to people and other living beings. 

Go to the margins of yourself where you are uncomfortable with who you are – your attitude, behavior, self-disgust and be tender with yourself – right there. It’s not about giving yourself a pass for being a jerk or an SOB to someone. Rather it is the art of practicing tenderness toward your sense of self in the presence of disappointing behavior. Stop demonizing yourself. When you do you are more apt to demonize with judgment those around you- in family, community and the world. Stand in solidarity for that part of you that you judge with disdain in the same way you would for your child or someone else you love and respect and has engaged a behavior that is less than you know them to be. When you take time to “see” yourself through the eyes of tenderness you will see others that way too. Unless you make friends with your own wound you will be vulnerable to despise others who are wounded and contribute to wounding the earth around you. 

3. Stop demonizing other people—widen your circle so that no one is standing outside of it

We tend to not demonize people we know and love.  Insist that your life be relational to all peoples. Learn to cultivate a healthy solidarity with others who are demonized. Eliminate “us” and “them” mentality. Who they are is who I am. Kinship creates equality. Take time to sit with the pain of others who suffer. It makes “them” me. The good for nothing becomes good for something. Become curious about what people have to carry rather than standing in judgment and demonizing others who have been hurtful to you, community and the world around you. It doesn’t mean the elimination of consequences. It does mean the elimination of objectifying others through labels and name calling. It does mean standing with the disposable, those who are thrown away- the homeless, people of color, addicts, sex offenders and those who don’t see the world the way you do. Compassion means that we stand for that part in us and in others who are in the margins, those whose burdens are greater than they can bear. Every addict must do this within themselves. Listen and be tender, making sure that part in you that is hurting is allowed to be heard. If not, then it will be that part that triggers addictive urge- “wanting what I want when I want it”. It’s giving dignity and respect and not demonizing self or others.

Sitting with the pain and hurt within yourself and with others is often the greatest experience in compassion. It is difficult to wrestle with discomfort. It is hard to observe your loved one engage turmoil and emotional suffering. It is a challenge to not judge others when they lash out in their pain and struggle and create injustice for others. In the presence of COVID-19, fires, hurricanes, racial injustice, political and election turmoil, it’s compassion that brings division into unity and creates healing connection in community. Compassion welcomes the entire plate of human emotions. With compassion we will find our steadiness by feeling and making friends with all of human experience. Compassion provides the strength to widen your circle and create kinship and mutuality with the world around you. Compassion is the component that solidifies and keeps you from being toppled by it all.

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