“Way back when I was a young lad in the military” [always wanted to say that]. Anyways, I was in the military once upon a time.
I was stationed out in Suffolk England for about 4 years. In those days, if we witnessed or heard of some unfortunate event that befell one person or a group of people, we adopted the attitude of “that could have happened to us.” Believe me, we all shared this feeling. In case you are wondering … yes, this was a simple act of compassion. Why did everyone I serve with in my brief tour of duty seem to feel this way?
A “white tornado” was when your drill instructor decided to go into your living quarters by surprise, kick everyone out, literally turn your quarters upside down, and then give you 5 minutes to prepare for an inspection.
Try to visualize yourself as 18 or 19 years old. You are going through basic military training (aka boot camp), and it is hell on Earth. On one random morning at 3am, you hear yelling and screaming next door. You look outside only to watch your buddies next door go through what they use to call a “white tornado”. A “white tornado” was when your drill instructor decided to go into your living quarters by surprise, kick everyone out, literally turn your quarters upside down, and then give you 5 minutes to prepare for an inspection (BTW 3am was a popular time for drill instructors to do this sort of thing). No one going through boot camp during that time was immune to “white tornados”, no one. This attitude of “that could have happened to us” also helped us to be prepared for everything and expect everything. Instead of hating Murphy’s Law, we became very intimate with it.
Let us move fast forward in time to when I was living a civilian life in cushy Southern California (just a few years ago). Although life there was aesthetically wonderful, there were many underlying threads of high expectations and entitlements that seemed to choke the atmosphere around us just as much as suburban sprawl choked the remaining pieces of pristine San Diego landscape. Compassion seemed to fall off the radar in favour of amusement for the masses from other people’s misfortunes! One phrase that was sadly all-too-common during my time there was “yup, sucks for them.” Speaking of sucking, I admit that I was beginning to be sucked up into this too. Slowly but surely, I began feeling less and less compassionate. Why??? How???
Putting ourselves in the same situation as someone else is where compassion starts.
To answer the why and the how bit we have to define compassion first. What is compassion? Is compassion the same thing as empathy? Is it the same thing as pity? I remember hearing, at a very early age, to “put yourself in their shoes”. This was very easy to do as a child. Unfortunately, a lot of us start to lose this when we grow up for whatever reason – maybe because we begin to believe we are all separate. Putting ourselves in the same situation as someone else is where compassion starts. If we do this with honest effort we start to relate to what someone might be going through, especially if we have been through something similar. After we start to relate to other humans, animals, or all things, we develop feelings and a deeper understanding of the experience and the experiencer. This is compassion.
Compassion is different from pity in that pity is associated with the ego. There is still a “grasping” of the self (ego) when pity rears its head – sucks for them. Pity is condescending. The ego dissolves with true compassion. You are no longer separate from what is happening. There is no us and them. If we develop compassion, we develop a connection with all things. In fact, we actually re-discover that this connection has always existed!
The next time someone gets upset at you and begins to berate you, be mindful of your breath and your thoughts, tune into the words you hear and do your best to understand that this person is suffering. Avoid judgement, don’t take it personal, walk away if you need to, but know this person is suffering, and maybe you can help.
“And just remember that it could be your luggage they are loading right now.”
I remember one of my many business trips when I was still working in the Software industry. I was sitting on a plane before take-off that was held at the gate for a long time. Many passengers started to become impatient. Finally, the Captain’s voice came on the speakers, “Hello folks we are very sorry for the delay. Please bear with us while they load the last of the luggage. And just remember that it could be your luggage they are loading right now.” I smiled and thought to myself “I bet the Captain was prior-military”.