From Contempt to Compassion

Years ago, I was hired by a telecommunications company to be part of a team of consultants working on revamping one of their systems.  I reported to a young woman who worked for a “Big Eight” accounting firm.  She drove me crazy with her micromanaging style.  As the days turned into weeks, I alternated between avoiding her and being deliberately difficult in her presence.  My contempt was making me miserable.

Then one day, she came to the office in a short-sleeved dress.  On both arms were rashes that looked raw and painful.  When I inquired about her inflamed, she confided that she had a stress-induced skin condition. In that moment, my contempt turned to compassion.

I understood her urge to control was a result of intense anxiety which caused her great distress.  Although she did not become a close personal friend, she was no longer the enemy.  We finished the project on good footing.

Since that time, I’ve had other instances of successfully working with high-anxiety supervisors; I also have other examples of forgetting how much people struggle.  I need constant reminding that often we act insufferable because we are suffering. 

Suffering: The Common Denominator

I recently attended a weekend retreat during which I was reminded about human suffering; life is difficult and our responses to the difficulties create misery.  The path to compassion is awareness of these truths.  I realize this sounds easier than it is.  Some people are annoying and don’t easily show us their soft underbellies.

For me the key is trying to get to know people: scratching below the surface.  Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”  A friend, who is a practicing Buddhist, told me that it’s too difficult for him to decide who to like and who not to like so he decides he’s going to like everyone.

Now, a Mother Theresa, I’m not, so I have to make more of an effort to like everyone.  In order for my compassion to kick in, I need to see others’ humanness: their frailties. Similarly, in order for people to like me, they need to see my vulnerabilities.

When a colleague at a business meeting had a meltdown, I immediately felt closer to him.  Some of my dearest friendships were borne from an incident where one of us was openly struggling: losing our footing at a meeting or a social event and being open about it.

The Vulnerability Connection

Sometimes folks are so guarded, we may never crack their facade.  I believe that modeling being vulnerable, however, is the best way to get others to do the same.  If I fess up to my challenges, perhaps others will feel more comfortable to admit to theirs.

When I was a high school counselor, I was asked to be on a panel discussion about the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and ‘90s.  The organizer of the school-wide event, a member of our staff, had lost his brother to AIDS and was seeking others who had personal experiences with the deadly disease.  I shared my story about my brother-in-law, who had died in a Manhattan hospital of AIDS in the early ‘90s.  I was with him during his final days.  When I told my story to this large group of teenagers, I was moved to tears.  You could hear a pin drop; all eyes were on me and I saw great compassion in those eyes.

Life doesn’t come with guarantees.  Not everyone will respond to our truth; not everyone will be moved to share theirs.  But try we must.