Although my previous post on compassion discussed how to practice the habit, it only lightly touched on why. Tonight I want to start exploring why.
Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden. – Uncertain origins
and a related quote, from a book called Courtesy:
This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.
Do you know the kinds of burdens that others carry? Do you recognize the burdens that you carry? Can you name your filters and judgments, the things that separate you from others and from experiencing the world?
To become acquainted with kindness one must be prepared to learn new things and feel new feelings. Kindness is more than a philosophy of the mind. It is a philosophy of the spirit. – Robert J. Furey
Through personal growth and emotional healing workshops, I’ve had the experience of listening to many people discuss their wounds, their struggles, and their shattered dreams. I’ve faced my own dark years, both alone and as a caregiver for another. It’s given me a quiet seriousness about the hard times in life. It has also given me perspective on the unseen lives of others I bump into throughout my days.
So what are the burdens people carry?
Pain. Physical pain – illness, injury, back problems, sleep problems, dental problems, migraines, whole-body pain disorders. Nutritional deficiencies, hormonal and endocrine issues, mood variability, environmental sensitivities, high blood pressure, chronic illness. Emotional pain – mental health issues, loss of attention due to sleep deprivation, depression, anxiety, rage, PTSD, memories and after-effects of abuse and trauma and fear.
Loss of loved ones, to illness or addictions or natural disasters or wars. Loss of their own sense of self in unhealthy relationships or difficult situations. Economic stress, impossible decisions of whether to buy food or medicine or pay rent – pick only one. Fear of losing a bad job because it still pays better than no job, or at least it provides health insurance. Impossible decisions on how to cope with unbearable pain when they have no health insurance. The struggle to keep anger and fear at bay when frustrations pile on with no end in sight.
Social isolation, loneliness. Private shame, guilt over words said or words unsaid, guilt over having physical and emotional needs. Uncertainty and dissociation about simply being embodied; physicality. Embarrassment around sexuality and emotional expressiveness, or particular experiences or past wounds around those. Frustration and uncertainty about how to help a loved one who is refusing all help. Obsessive refusal to give up hope for another person in spite of looming bad circumstances and impossible odds, mixed with guilt and self-doubt about whether that hope serves or is just selfish.
Difficulty determining how to relate to family or interact with elderly members when their behavior is not sane nor sensible. Or hearing others talk about their struggles with a living family member, when yours has died, leaving a gaping hole in your heart.
The effort to wear a mask of neutrality and be polite and effective at work in spite of pain and exhaustion and sadness/fear/anger/hopelessness. The effort to present a calm face to others to keep interactions comfortable and simple. The daily struggle for someone in a disadvantaged minority, to hold themselves together publicly in spite of the pains of life, knowing they will be judged more harshly and unfairly if the mask cracks, and losing the job would destroy too many critical resources. And amidst it all, there are always too many things to get done in a day, too many demands, and not enough resources to go around.
Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.
Take a breath. A little space, a little air; take another breath as it feels comfortable. Can you take a moment to notice, with gratitude, that you are alive and breathing? Can you notice other things close to you, perhaps muscles you can move, or other senses, that you are also grateful for? Can you feel the painful places gently opening for that gratitude?
Kindness is like that. Kindness opens a space.
It can be deeply respectful to give someone the gift of your patience – especially when they haven’t “earned” it. In most cases, you don’t know what’s actually going on with them; perhaps a toothache has made them short tempered, or their recent relationship hurt them, or they just lost their job. Perhaps the communities they’ve lived in have judged them harshly for their personality or desires, and they’re defensive or closed off as a result. Your patience can potentially open a space for both of you.
When you respond to a hard situation with kindness instead of anger, you gain a pleasant memory instead of an unpleasant one to think about for the rest of the day. You may reduce the escalation, or turn a sour moment into an opportunity. It may even help you remember to slow down and be aware of your impact and your day, which can lead you to noticing other blessings and useful moments.
You also open opportunities for the other person. Maybe they will notice that at least once, someone was kind instead of harsh, or yielded instead of cutting them off, and feel better about themselves or the world. Acts of compassion can be disarming, helping someone soften their brittle defensiveness and instead work through their feelings more effectively. Or perhaps it will simplify their day just by having one less confrontation to deal with.
When you are unkind in a community of people who know each other, gossip gets around. It takes weeks or months to earn a friend and only a day to lose one. The person you speak poorly about may be a friend of the person you’re talking to, or a friend of someone they share it with. If you’re particularly public in your rants about someone, others you didn’t realize were watching will form opinions of you based on what you said about another. And unless the topic is serious and important to share, you risk being seen as someone who judges and complains about others, and may not be trustworthy.
In contrast, if you are patient and speak with compassion, minimizing gossip and keeping legitimate complaints factual and undramatic, you will gain trust, friendships, and confidences.
Kindness and compassion don’t mean having a simplistic view of the world where nobody is ever an asshole. There are plenty of people who are intentionally cruel, and discernment is still a necessary skill. What kindness really means is a willingness to “look again,” an opportunity for correcting your misconceptions. It is a willingness to pause judgment instead of jumping to conclusions. By giving that pause, you allow others to show more of their real selves, and you open space in your mind for a different kind of experience.
That opens many more doors. Patience with others will create opportunities for friendships and professional networking, help others reveal more of their depths, and give you opportunities to encounter new ideas, learn, and grow. It makes it easier to get along in communities, which opens further advantages over time.
Kindness and compassion aren’t just about the actions you see others take, or words they say, but also forgiveness for analytical failures, words that slip out wrong, uneducated or uncritical thinking, differing opinions and experiences, differing fears and risk evaluations. You can still make choices about who you would enjoy intentionally spending time with – but perhaps you could be a bit slower to judge someone as a person for just their beliefs that you consider mistaken. People change, circumstances change, and they may not be the same forever.
At a very fundamental level, “other people” are one of the most important resources we have. Few of us could survive, let alone thrive, if we had to build our own cabins, grow and store our own food, make our own jars to store the food in, mine the ore to build the heat pump and box to act as a refrigerator…. and so on. Sharing and trading resources and skills is what our civilizations are based on. And we are social creatures; we need our tribe, our community, our friends. Kindness smooths the interactions and eases a bit of others’ burdens as well as our own.
You must be the change you want to see in the world. – Gandhi