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 asked her about her rashes, 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.
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.
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.