Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exercising those compassion muscles

Graffiti looks pretty much the same, no matter where it is displayed or what the nationality is.  This one, from Naples, seems little different from anything I'm likely to find in Seattle, apart from the more obviously italianate words an phrases.

Love looks pretty much the same everywhere, as well -- though I did notice that the young lovers in Italy were FAR more public in their displays of affection  than I'm used to seeing.  Love, pain, friendship, loss -- these are the universal human experiences that cut across the range of cultures, races, and religious beliefs; these are the things we share with pretty much every human being we're likely to encounter.

These are also the experiences that drive the behaviors we find endearing and frustrating in the people around us.  I read a story today in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry about a military man in a hurry who stood in line at the grocery store behind a woman with a baby and a single package to check out. 

He tried hard to talk her into entering the express line, but she seemed determined to stay, and even slowed things down further by handing her baby to the checkout girl, who hugged it tightly and cooed over it as if it were her own.  The man grew extremely irritated; it was as if these people were deliberately slowing him down.

It was only after the woman left with the baby that he learned that the she was the checkout girl's mom, that the baby was her daughter's; that the checkout girl's husband had been an airforce pilot, killed in action, and her mom was watching her baby girl during the day so she could work.  And then, of course, he berated himself for his impatience.

It seems to me that upon closer examination we almost always learn the same thing: that the person who is bugging us -- for whatever reason -- is human, and probably has some perfectly good reason why they're doing whatever it is that irritates us.  Sometimes, of course, those reasons may be deeply buried in past experiences, and challenging to articulate.  But still -- it's probably best to assume that if we knew their story, it would be far easier to understand their actions.

Which seems to me to be a good place to begin if we are going to get more intentional about practicing compassion.  If someone is driving you crazy today, try to imagine what their story might be; what might be driving their odd behaviors.  It might make it easier to be patient; it might help strengthen your compassion muscles; and it might even exercise your imagination in a way that could improve ALL your mental processes...

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