Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Compassion (Farragut & Lenoir City)
Had I walked the full distance to my host's house on the south side of Lenoir City it would have been at least four hours out in the rain. When I was just about to cross into the Lenoir city limits my cell phone rang. It was my host Johnnie leaving work. He said he and his wife had been thinking about me today, especially given the bad weather, and wanted to know if he could pick me up on his way home and save me at least a mile or two of wet walking.
Amidst a journey of hundreds of kindnesses, spontaneous small gestures like this still leave me feeling humbled and unfathomably grateful. What Johnnie did was the essence of compassion. Not compassion as pity or sympathy. Compassion as "experiencing with" the other. He put himself in my shoes and intuited how I must be feeling, hours into a cold and damp walk. Then he treated me as he would have liked to have been treated. It was as simple as that. The things that make life most beautiful are always that simple ... and that accessible.
Another example from the past couple of days. My grandmother's sister Jeanette and her husband Bill noticed a few days ago that I still didn't have a place to stay in Farragut on Monday night. They live all the way down in Chattanooga. Yet despite the distance and the fact that they will be hosting me for six days next week, Bill called and said they would like to pick me up that afternoon and take me to the resort town of Gatlinburg for the night. I can't tell you how nice it is to get a phone call like that. They "experienced with" me the struggle of having to constantly arrange hosts day in and day out and acted on that inner knowing, offering a compassionate solution.
All of the world's major religions teach variations of the Golden Rule. Matthew's account of Jesus' teaching explains it as follows in his Sermon on the Mount:
"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."
Think of how much more immediate that teaching becomes when you go out of your way to try to walk in the shoes of others and feel what they might be experiencing. It triggers that part of our consciousness that immediately knows what we would like done for us in a similar situation. It puts us on the path to practice the Golden Rule.
This walk has made me acutely aware that I have not always led a very compassionate life. It has not been out of malice, but rather out of laziness. I haven't asked myself often enough how others in my life must be experiencing the situations they are facing. Thus the trigger isn't pulled where I say to myself, "wow, if I was in their shoes I would really appreciate if this were done for me." That's all it takes. Once that thought pattern is set into motion, acts of compassion inevitably follow.
Every person and family who has hosted me on this trip has shown me compassion. In some small way they have "experienced with" me what it must be like to be walking across country, vulnerable and in need of shelter, and thought, "this is how I would like to be treated were I to be in his shoes." Staring in the face of such beauty each and every day has changed me.
For this reason, and for hundreds more, it caught my attention when I heard Karen Armstrong talk about A Charter for Compassion. The charter is being unveiled Thursday and its goal is to reach across the broad spectrum of religions and advocate for more compassionate living. Theological beliefs differ, but let's agree that in the realm of life on this earth what we need now is to commit to "experiencing with" and then acting out of the love it inevitably triggers.
I can attest, it changes a person. It's as simple as that.