I recently participated in a group conversation about compassion. The discussion was focused on what compassion is, how we apply it in our lives, and especially how we put it into practice when faced with difficulties.
I had a funny experience as the conversation started. I kept getting images of the Dalai Lama giggling in my head. Someone would make some point about compassion and the Dalai Lama would pop into my brain with his cute little, “hee, hee, hee.” He so embodies compassion that I couldn’t separate the word from his image. I also realized that Dalai Lama-esque compassion is so rare that his example of compassion is often not useful. In fact, he sets the bar so high that a conversation on the Dalai Lama as the model of compassion has nowhere to go but down as everyone involved kind of feels defeated before the talk begins. Like my playing a game of basketball with LeBron James: it’s over before it starts.
So I put my adorable little giggling Dalai Lama image in the back pocket of my mind for safekeeping and re-engaged in the discussion just in time to hear a woman ask a question about compassion and disease. Looking at her, I could see she was in emotional pain. I could feel and almost see the emotion welling up inside her as she spoke. With tears in her eyes and a tremble in her voice she made a declaration: “I want to be compassionate, but I am suffering. I am dealing with a disease and I just can’t feel compassion for the sickness.” And then she cried.
Some answers were offered up, intellectual options for her to consider. All were useful and, yet at the same time, somewhat empty given the outpouring of honest emotion the woman had given us.
I don’t find words particularly helpful in situations like these. Despite the fact that I may have some useful information, or maybe not, words never seem to make a difference, they don’t ease the pain. As I looked at her all I could see was my mom … sick, in pain, and yet still desperately trying to be “good.” Do you know this feeling? When life is closing in on you and you want to scream but you don’t because it’s not the spiritually “good” thing to do? So you hold it in until the tears, one by one, inch to the surface and you burst.
So I sat quietly observing this woman and my mom emotionally rolled into one woman suffering from a painful disease while desperately seeking to be told “all is well.”
At the end of the discussion I found the woman in line to the restroom. It was an awkward place for a man to engage a woman. So I gently said to her, “This is unsolicited so I give you full permission to tell me no. But I want you to know that I heard you and, more importantly, I felt you. I would like to offer you a hug.”
Her eyes, welling with tears, looked deep into my own, as if searching for something. Maybe she was looking to see if it was safe to let go. Somewhere inside me I heard a voice say, “I love you, Mom.” And then the woman opened her arms and I gave her a hug … or more accurately, we hugged each other. Standing in line for the restroom we held on and cried. Then, when it was her turn to use the bathroom, she let go, looked at me with a deep, loving smile, and said simply, “Thank you, I needed that.” As it turns out, so did I.
I think that is compassion. I’m not saying this to show off compassionate Jason. I am prone, just like all of us, to intellectualize situations like this, to give advice and offer up all kinds of really wise tidbits about what someone should do to ease their pain. So this is not, in any way, my saying I have mastered compassion.
What I am saying is that in this instance, by finding common ground with this woman in a place we shared – her current pain and my experience with my mom – I was able to see myself in her. The woman’s pain was not “her disease” it was our dis-ease, and more importantly it was an invitation to truly connect with another soul. That hug was as healing for me as it was for her. She shared what she had to share and I gave what I had to give and we healed each other.
That is compassion, and represents the kind of person I want to be in this world. It is the gift I want to offer, a simple yet powerfully loving hug … and one I want to receive in return.
This is a strange realization for me. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be the smartest, wisest, most capable and skilled man I could be. I have worked so hard, tried my absolute best and learned so so much. Yet as I write this, I realize that everything I want to be I learned from my mom so many years ago at the day-care center where she worked, watching a line of kids waiting to get their hug from Grandma Sue-Sue, my mom.
That image of the nightly hug has represented many different things to me over my lifetime. At the time it was boring and, honestly, I was jealous. I just wanted to go home with my mommy and instead there she was at the day-care center giving love and attention to a bunch of other kids. I felt abandoned and alone. Later in life, those experiences were the theme of therapy and self-exploration for me as I worked to comfort the hurt little boy inside. When my mom died and I saw so many of the children (now grown adults) at her funeral, the image of her nightly hug-line brought me great pride and admiration – “That was my mom.”
Standing with that woman in the bathroom line brought the image full circle. As much as she represented my mom at that moment, so did I. Applying the lessons learned watching my mom, I gave a simple hug that meant so much to another human being. And then, applying the lessons learned from being me, my mother’s son, I walked to my family and hugged them too, so we could all share in the moment.
This was an act of compassion for us all – a hug for a woman in need, a moment of love for my family, and the realization for the little boy inside that all is well.
— This note is dedicated to my childhood friend, Jason Grogan, who recently left his body, and to his wife and six year-old child, who I don’t know, but to whom I send my compassion and love. —
Big hugs of love,