Learning Compassion

Opportunities to learn sometimes come as a surprise. They sneak up on you, unexpected and unwelcome. They often come hand in hand with a stressful event.

A few months ago, my wife decided to take action on a chronic health issue that had deteriorated. I won’t go into the details, but it involved trips to the doctor, hospital stays, procedures and lots of sleepless nights. I even got my first ride in an ambulance going “Code 1.” For those of you fortunate enough to not know what Code 1 is, its when the ambulance travels at top speed with its lights on and its sirens blaring.

With all these weeks of craziness, my mind was clearly off-balance, and I knew it was off-balance, but I didn’t realize I was in new territory. Frail.

Louisa had been released from the hospital, and we were driving home. As we neared the end of Storrow Drive, my attention was drawn to a Jeep Cherokee in the middle lane. I can’t tell you why the Jeep caught my attention, but no doubt it was connected to some blink response deep in me. I held back, keeping an eye on the SUV.

As we reached a bend in the road, sure enough, the Jeep behaved erratically: it weaved in and out of our lane. Had we been next to the Jeep, it would have hit us. I muttered “asshole,” but for some reason my heart wasn’t in it.

The road straightened, so I sped up to clear the Jeep. I glanced over at the driver. Sure enough, he was doing just what I figured: reading from his phone.

Now, normally, when I see a situation like that, my response is predictable: I feel angry. I think, “You selfish git.” But not that day.

Instead, I felt a surge of sadness. Not for me, but for the driver. The story I told myself was that he had missed the turn for the hospital, and he was trying to double back. Perhaps his wife was in ER, and he needed to get there straight away - hence his distraction. Still unacceptable, but certainly understandable.

An interesting experience with compassion. Of course, the complicated story I told myself was most likely nonsense, and I can’t go through life bursting into tears every time I see someone texting while driving. If I did, I’d never get anywhere.

As a guy whose identity is tied up in the role of “problem solver,” it was good to be reminded that, whatever was going on in the Jeep, I didn’t have the facts. So perhaps I should stop guessing and hold my judgement.

What is compassion? Of course I looked up the meaning online. Funny how the experts don’t agree on a precise definition of a common word. I made up my own:

Compassion is the ability to tell yourself a story that allows you to feel sympathetically towards someone when you don’t know the facts behind their otherwise offensive action.

It won’t stand the test of time. But it helps me empathise with others, which should lead to better decision making.

Erik Fogg

MidTide Media, Marblehead, MA, USA

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.