Compassion As Discipline

March 1, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.” – HH, the Dalai Lama

Think of people as a cross between ants and marbles constantly moving in somewhat random patterns. A mass of movement, whirring about, jostling for position and direction going about our business of motion. Sometimes we bump into each other and those bumps impact direction and velocity. When we bump, it is a function of being in the right place at the right time to have whatever impact we do. We go about our days, marblesbumping into other marbles in the checkout line, while making lane changes, and while making a living. Many contacts happen without us being aware of them, without thinking.  People often have tunnel vision and are focused only on our own paths. The reality is, though, that the opportunity for real connection is always there, we simply must expect it from ourselves.  Even amidst seemingly random patterns we can choose to forge bonds with each other, but we must be committed to seeing other people with compassion.

One day I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up a prescription. It was a gray, blustery day. Traffic in the parking lot was horrible, and I could see an even more frustrating backup while a car inexplicably sat in the way of any traffic in any direction. I hate that. I was not in the best of moods that day, and after I waited five long minutes I got out of my car and walked to the head of the line, which was now edging out into the street. I gestured at the driver and at that moment a man walked out of the store and headed over to the waiting car. He asked me what my problem was, and I said that I was going to ask her to move the car so the traffic could pass. I was on my best behavior, I was professional, pleasant, not at all nasty. I really didn’t expect the vitriol that spewed from his mouth at me.  I can’t remember the details but I remember my reaction. Instead of flinching back I took a step forward, straightened my posture, stuck out my chin, and said his attack was unnecessary. He then said, “What are you going to do, hit me? You big dyke.” Bizarre. I am anything but big. I am a little thing, even if I am strong, and I don’t necessarily transmit dykeness, at least that is what folks tell me. I was really taken aback. I wondered why he chose to call me a dyke. Perhaps in his world women who don’t back down to aggression are immediately dykes. I swear all this flashed through my brain, along with some odd fear that I look gay. I have never cared about looking gay, nor do I know what looking gay means. I said something vaguely insulting like I wouldn’t want to catch your stupid, and he got in the car and they drove away.

I went back to my car, parked and walked inside. I was shaking, and almost in tears from some kind of weird fragile rage. An elderly gentlemen nodded at me as I walked in and I forced myself to smile back. I went to get my prescription, and he walked up. We started chatting, and I don’t remember what he said to me, something about the weather and prescriptions – just small talk. He asked me if I was okay. I think he had seen the altercation, or maybe he just noticed me looking upset. I explained a bit of what happened, and he said you are too nice and smart a woman to let such rudeness shake you up. “If were younger I think I’d ask you out.” So weird. Maybe that was his way of reassuring me about the whole wacky encounter. Maybe he didn’t even see it. But his kindness and concern and reaching out to my, at that moment, very small sad self, touched me deeply. I don’t know why. I’ll bet he has forgotten that exchange, but I haven’t. I remember it as a bright spot of human warmth during an ugly day.

Another time, in a long ago incarnation of me, I was again not at my best. I was young and new to St. Louis. I was taking classes and working full time, and was very fragile and bruised by life in general. One morning I was particularly overwhelmed in class. I had cut my hand very badly the night before, didn’t have health insurance to get it stitched up, and was having the damnedest time. It didn’t help that I had a manual transmission, and driving itself seemed like too much to handle.  One fellow from the class came up to me as I was trying to juggle my books and get to my car. He asked me what the problem was, looked at the bandage job my friends and I had done and asked if I needed to go to the doctor. I told him no, I that didn’t have health insurance. He said, “You really need to get that looked at, I’ll drive you.” His unexpected kindness undid my defenses.  He drove me to a doc-in-the-box, ran me around town and generally took care of me that day. I ended up getting stitches; we ended up friends. Several times he just swooped in for no reason and did very kind things for me. He made a huge difference in my life time and again. I doubt that he knows how much his actions meant to me, though I have tried to tell him. We’ve become friends, and it is so easy to understand the significance of a friend. But I will always treasure the kindness that he showed before he knew me well, and see that as the measure of him as a person.

I can’t count the number of times a few words shared with a stranger,or a surprise act of kindness, or an anonymous gesture of support have made a difference to me. They have taught me how easy it is to make an impact in the lives of those around us. The smallest acts of kindness can brighten a day. Large gestures aren’t necessary to lift someone out of a painful rut.

If we see the folks around us as human beings, if we discipline ourselves to look with compassionate eyes we can touch and be touched so easily. It can be hard to reach out to someone you don’t know well, or even to someone you do. Often folks often don’t understand acts of generosity without a return for the giver, even if the gift is only a kind word. And it can feel risky to reach out. It can be just as scary to offer kindness as it is to receive it, but truly wonderful things can grow from the little seeds we sow. Instead of waiting to feel compassion – which is a passive stance, decide to be compassionate.  Embracing compassion as a discipline instead of a feeling has helped me act with kindness when I couldn’t before. One acts, instead of reacting, in relation to events or people or feelings. Choosing to act instead of reacting is itself centering and calming. People making that choice in a way that helps to build a world where compassion and kindness are not hoped for but expected – that is the world in which I want to live in. It is the world I choose right now.

Image is © Sean Gladwell |


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Category: Communication, Culture, Inspirational, Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Lisa lives and works in the city of St. Louis, and is striving to develop the right mix of both while asking herself what it means to live a good life. You can follow her on twitter

Comments (5)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Thank you Lisa, for wise and kind words on a particularly tough day.

  2. Erich Vieth says:


    On the night before my wedding to my wife Anne, 13 years ago, I had arranged to stay in a motel with a good friend (Howard). We walked up to the counter of a small dingy motel lobby and we were greeted by a rude motel clerk. I had seen this sort of attitude in motels before (who hasn’t?), and I thought to myself “I just want to sign in and get to the room, so we don’t need to be around this grumpy guy.” Howard had a different reaction. He gave the clerk direct eye contact and said, “It looks like things are not going well for you tonight.” The clerk paused, then said, “I’m really nervous because I’m not feeling well and I need to go in for a medical test on Monday.”

    That initial exchange led to some more conversation regarding the man’s health, as well as encouragement by us and some smiles all around. Instead of leaving the lobby glad to be rid of the guy, we were all waving and smiling as we headed to the room. None of that would have happened without Howard’s willingness to take a chance by saying something.

    Taking a chance rather than not. That’s how I interpret what you did by walking up to the car. That’s how I interpret what the older man did when he came up to talk with you after your parking lot incident. Words (sometimes in the form of silly-banter) are the first step on the road to a human connection. It all seems so silly sometimes, to take a chance to utter those first words, but that is a tried and true entry point to every exchange that is meaningful and sometimes a relationship that becomes permanent. Sometimes I think back to the people who are my closest companions, and I laugh at how it usually does start off the same way, with a comment or a question. Sometimes, it’s an especially well-conceived utterance, but mostly it’s the fact that you take the chance to say something rather than nothing. It’s the act of speaking rather than the content of your first statement that sends the signal that you are a believer in I-Thou, the fertile field for the beginning of every meaningful relationship.

    Taking that chance to say something rather than nothing is that which converts marbles into real people. It didn’t exactly work out on the parking lot for you, but it sounds like it’s the all-round the best strategy for anyone who wants to be part of something bigger than one’s self.

  3. Carly S. says:

    I have to offer my gratitute as well. I actually started crying reading this article and relating it to my own life experiences. I stumbled upon this article while writing a community service statement and searching for the "Broken Window" theory, being that state of one's surroundings (the built environment, litter, etc.) can impact/influence the degree of compasion in one's actions/behavior. I wish more people knew the value and understanding of empathy and compasion for others. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A few years ago, the old minivan I was driving suddenly quit running on a busy street. I coasted to the shoulder, and after determining that the engine wasn't going to start, decided the best action was to get the van off the street and have it hire a tow truck the next day. The only option was a parking lot about 15 feet behind me, so a started pushing the van backward and up a slight incline to get it off the street.

    For over an hour gradually move the 2 ton van a few inches at a time, chocking a wheel to keep it from rolling while I rested. During this time, several passing motorists stopped to insult me, and one actually threw a half empty soft drink cup at me, laughed and drove on. Many screamed at me to get "that damned piece of junk" off the street , even though it was not blocking traffic. No one offered any help, until a pickup truck pulled up, and several young Hispanic men jumped out, help push the van back to the parking lot, jumped back in the pickup. It was obvious that none of them spoke any English. I thanked them as best I could before they left, then started the 2 mile walk to get home.

  5. Ben says:

    The other night, as I was heading to my car after having some food (and drinks) at a pub, a young shivering hispanic man asked me for some help. He showed me a scrap of paper with an address written on it, and asked if I knew how to get there. I recognized the address as that of a nearby homeless shelter. I offered to walk him over there, and on the way I gave him my take-out food and a couple dollars.

    The door to the shelter was locked, but we could see people inside sleeping on the floor. We knocked a few times, but they weren't going to open the doors until morning. The wind was really biting that evening, and I thought of myself in his shoes for a moment. I decided to let him sleep in my car. I gave him some gloves and my sweater and some more money. Then I went home (with him in the passenger seat) and got my scooter, and bought some beer (mostly for him), then drove back to where I park. He was sad about having left his kids/family back in guatemala, but he "don't want to cry" he kept saying. He wanted to learn more english so we listened to the radio, and at one point he even joined me for a short game of drunk soccer. Then I taught him how to count to 1 quadrillion. Then I decided it was time to go, so I rode home on my scooter, and asked him to lock the car in the morning. When I drove my other car to work the next day I was afraid he might still be there, but he was gone.

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