A Commuter’s Classroom: Learning Compassion in the Fast Lane

“The difference between persons and groups of persons is not that some are victims and some are not: we are all victims and all dying from lack of compassion; we are all surrendering our humanity together.” (Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice)

“Drive with love, drive with love, drive with love.”

This has been my mantra recently while driving in traffic. I have decided that traffic is my test — my chance to really begin to feel the connectedness with others that is required to truly begin cultivating a heart filled with compassion. Traffic has always maddened me, especially the heavy, slow-moving drivers along the treacherous pathways known as Atlanta’s interstate system.

The little metal boxes we drive furiously to and from our daily destinations serve as a good metaphor for the disconnection we feel with each other. We’re isolated, alone in our little worlds, shaking our fist at those in their little metal worlds who refuse to evacuate the lane fast enough for our taste. I learned quickly that unless you are prepared to do 80 miles-per-hour on the Atlanta autobahn you would enrage everyone around you. We never stop to think that the person in front of us, or behind us, or beside us, is doing just what we’re doing — going to our assigned positions for the day. We all have to get there. We all have to work together to get there safely. Despite our physical separation, it takes all of us, together, to get there in one piece. It takes practicing compassion for people around you — really understanding that their progress is directly connected to your progress — not just in traffic, but in every area of life.

I was chanting this mantra recently in traffic when my car was the first one struck in what would end up being a four-car pileup. I saw the van coming at a high rate of speed in my rear-view mirror while the traffic in front of me and around me began to slow almost to a stop. I tried to get out of his way into the left emergency lane, but I was too slow. He struck me, the car in front of me, and pushed that woman’s car into the car in front of her.

Our connectedness struck me — literally and figuratively. This man’s inattention — his inability to realize that we are all connected, led to a connection that none of us neither anticipated nor wanted.

This is the nature of compassion. Even though I was “driving with love” — trying to be compassionate to the people around me, just one person who believes we are completely separate from each other, cut off by class, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or any other barrier that humans create, can wreak havoc for all of us. This is why it is imperative for everyone to truly seek to cultivate compassion in our hearts, not only for us but also for everyone.

To be truly compassionate we have to be willing to fully enter the suffering of another, for that is the true definition of compassion — “suffering with.” We have to be willing to be vulnerable to them, to fully open our hearts and minds to their experiences, their pain, their joys, their concerns. We cannot be bystanders and be compassionate. We cannot pay lip service to compassion — we must immerse ourselves in the lives of others and help alleviate their suffering. This is the heart of compassion.

The true meaning of compassion, unfortunately, has been lost in our world of advertising slogans and meaningless commercial mantras. Pres. George W. Bush ran on the slogan of “compassionate conservatism” that did an injustice to both words. The slogan boiled down to nothing more than a “feel good” notion that meant conservatives would at least smile kindly while they trod upon the rights and feelings of those with whom they disagreed. It was not real compassion. Neither Bush, nor his party, have shown any tendencies to “suffer with” the people for which they supposedly have compassion.

The idea of real compassion has been lost to our generation. Our world is full of consumerism and “us” vs. “them” mentalities that keep us separated in our own identities be it liberal, conservative, gay, straight, white, black, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu. Maybe we can conjure up a sense of compassion and love for those within our own little group — but we feel nothing but contempt for those “outside” of “our” group. We are hardly willing to “suffer with” those in our own groups let alone open ourselves up to feel the suffering of people we consider “them.”

What compassion is not

As we look to cultivate true compassion in our lives, it might be instructive to begin with what compassion is not.

1. Compassion is not pity.

When we have pity for someone we tend to feel sorry for them. When we feel sorry for someone we feel that they are somehow “lesser” than we are. In our expression of pity we condescend to these people — in our pity we patronize them. We don’t enter into their suffering. We don’t seek to end their suffering for the better of everyone. We seek to end their suffering so they will go away and leave us alone and not bother us with their suffering anymore.

Gestalt therapist Frederick Perls warns “most of what passes muster as pity is actually disguised gloating.” When we have pity on someone we’re basically underscoring that we are better off than they are because we can afford the luxury of taking pity on them.

2. Compassion has no rules.

Conservative Christians have a ton of rules about what to believe, who to love and when to love them. If you believe as they do you will be loved, accepted and shown compassion. If your doctrines smell a bit off, however, look out! You’ll get no such compassion. You’ll get the pity we’ve described above. You’ll get condescension — a not too well disguised gloating.

On one of the message boards I frequent, one man had told the group he had given up hope because religion was so abusive to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The man was crying out for help — for a kind word — for a bit of compassion from others on the board. One of the fundamentalist posters made the attempt to reach out in kindness, but the hurting man lashed out, blaming this person in particular and his brand of Christianity in general for his feelings of unworthiness. The fundamentalist lashed back saying, “I offered you compassion and this is the thanks I get?”

The fundamentalists was unable to see that what he had offered this man was not anything near compassion but was pity disguised as gloating. He reiterated that it was not HIS fault that this man had had such a terrible time with Christianity and the church. He refused to enter into the suffering of this other human being because he had already decided that a gay person’s suffering was not worthy of his time or attention. Instead, he condescended to him — showing pity instead of compassion.

Before we judge our fundamentalist friend too harshly, let us remember that even Jesus had to be reminded that compassion does not play by any rules. In Matthew 15:22-28 we see Jesus confronted by a Canaanite woman — a Gentile — who begged Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Instead of refusing the woman’s request outright, Jesus ignores her! She persists and even the disciples come to Jesus, completely annoyed, asking him to turn her away. Jesus tries to by telling her the rules about his compassion.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!” he tells her. He’s not here for her — those are the rules. His compassion is reserved for the Jews. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus elaborates, in case she has missed his point. He’s got every right to withhold his compassion from this woman. He was not sent for her — a Gentile — a dog. He was sent for the chosen people!

The woman is relentless, however. “Yes, Lord,” she tells him, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

She reminded Jesus that compassion has no rules — no limits. We must freely give compassion, freely given by God to everyone, to one another. There are no “chosen people” — there are only “people.” There is no “us” and “them” — there is only “us.” We are all connected — we are all physical manifestations of the same God — the same life force animates each and every one of us.

Even Jesus had to be reminded of this fact by a woman he called a “dog.” We don’t know what kind of day Jesus was having when this woman showed up in his life. Maybe everything had gone wrong that day. Maybe Jesus was frustrated and had been jostled just one too many times by the traffic in the market. Maybe too many people, busy with their own lives and problems, had bumped into Jesus, not seeing him, not feeling any compassion for anyone. Maybe this woman’s presence was the last straw for Jesus that day — and he lashed out. Her words brought him back to himself — they were a bell of mindfulness for Jesus who was forced to remember that compassion has no rules — no boundaries.

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire,” he says, and her daughter is healed.

If even Jesus can sometimes forget that compassion has no boundaries, certainly it is something we need to be reminded of constantly as well. The people in our lives that we may consider to be “dogs” or unworthy of our time may be just the reminder we need that compassion has no limits.

3. Compassion is not a religion, but a way of life.

No one religion has a corner on compassion. In fact, while searching out books for this issue I was rather shocked to discover that very few books have been written on compassion from a Christian perspective. Compassion doesn’t seem to play very prominently in what Christian theologians and thinkers write about. You’ll find tons of books, however, on doctrines and dogmas of the church — the rules of belief. But, you’ll find very little Christian guidance on how to practice true compassion.

The most books about compassion have been written from a Buddhist perspective where the emphasis is placed on alleviating the suffering of the world. The Buddhists have a lot to teach we Christians about opening ourselves up to the “outside” world and realizing that we are all intimately connected to one another. Cultivating a heart of compassion relieves us of our fear of the “other” and opens us up to experience our interconnectedness with all living beings and cultivate an unconditional love for all creatures.

Cultivating a Heart of Compassion

It might be surprising, but the first step to cultivating compassion is to look in the mirror. That’s the person for which you must have the most compassion. If you cannot be compassionate with yourself you will never be able to be truly compassionate with others.

There are people in this world we call “givers.” You probably know a few. They give and give to others with no thought about themselves. They burn themselves out running around and doing things for others. Eventually they tire of doing good, and maybe even grow bitter because everyone else takes their time and they have none left over for themselves. They have compassion for everyone but themselves.

Jesus was clear. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That means we have to love ourselves first or we can never love our neighbor. The same is true for compassion. Until you can be compassionate with yourself, you’ll never show compassion to another person.

As we have said, compassion means “suffering with.” To have compassion for yourself you must bravely face your own suffering — your own personal pain. You must be vulnerable with yourself and reconcile old wounds. This can be a painful process and one that will most likely be going on at the same time you are cultivating compassion for others.

Meditating on and working through your own pain is key to honing an ability to help ease the suffering of others. As we look deeply at what causes our own suffering we begin to see that our suffering is not much different than everyone else’s suffering. All humans suffer from anger, fear, loneliness, a feeling of being lost or empty. These are universal sufferings. There is no one who has not felt these emotions of despair at one time or another.

If our sufferings are so similar, then why not our joys? If a touch, a kind word, a good deed for someone who can never pay you back makes us feel good, then wouldn’t they make another rejoice as well? When we look deeply at our own pain, we see how to relieve it not only in ourselves but others!

Once we realize the roots of our own suffering, we will begin to see the roots of the suffering of those around us. Once we know that the root of that suffering is the same, we begin to understand why people behave as they do. People who, before we began to cultivate our heart of compassion, irritated us or made us angry, now begin to elicit new feelings in us — a feeling of compassion.

That brings us to a new step in our journey — suspending judgment. When we judge someone we are not showing compassion — we are not seeing the suffering in the other person. Instead we have dismissed them as “homophobic,” “stupid,” “fundamentalist,” “dangerous,” and so forth. Compassion does not judge. Compassion sees everyone as equal. Compassion understands that everyone suffers. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn writes in “Peace is Every Step” that this doesn’t mean we have to like their actions, but it does mean we must try to understand their pain.

“When we come into contact with another person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being loveable. Then we can know that our mind of compassion is firm and authentic.”

Jesus said it this way in Matthew 5:44-48:

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Parent who is in heaven; for God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Parent is perfect.”

For our compassion to be authentic it must be expressed not only to our “brothers and sisters” but to those we would otherwise call our “enemies.” Instead of persecuting those who persecute us we are to pray for them, for they suffer just as we do — the sun rises on the evil and the good, the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. We all suffer. No matter what other differences we have, we are all alike in our suffering.

Jesus tells us to be “perfect” just as God is perfect. Christians today misunderstand this word. We think that to be “perfect” is to be flawless — to be sinless. To be “perfect” we must behave a certain way, talk a certain way, and believe a certain way. Otherwise we are less than perfect — we are immoral, sinners, hopelessly lost.

That is not what the word means at all. The word “perfect” in Greek is “teleios” which means to be “mature” or “adult.” Jesus is telling us to give up our childish desires for revenge on our enemies or our childish desire to be right and prove everyone else wrong. We’re to be adults and adults, according to Jesus, are compassionate — willing to “suffer with” anyone they encounter be they friend or foe.

To be “perfect” we must cultivate a heart of compassion — a heart ready to go out to anyone in need without judgment, without thinking about a reward for ourselves, often without thinking about our own lives. There have been extraordinary stories of people who have put themselves in harm’s way to save total strangers. People have risked their lives in fires, floods and accidents to make sure others are safe, with no thought as to their own safety.

According to Shopenhauer, the German philosopher, this fact reveals that “my own true inner being actually exists in every living creature … [and] is the ground of that compassion upon which all true, that is to say, unselfish virtue rests and whose expression is in every good deed.”

That unselfishness is the heart of our compassion. To truly express compassion we have to cultivate a heart filled with unconditional love that does not rush to judgment, but instead sees that our own “true inner being exists in every living creature.” As Shopenhauer puts it, we realize “thou art that.” We are the other person — we experience what they experience. We suffer what they suffer. There is no “us” and “them.” We are them. They are us.

Called to the one hope

Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that though each of us is very different, we are all members of the same body.

“For by one spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews, Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one spirit.” (v. 13)

Not one part of the body is unimportant. All must work together for the good of the body otherwise “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (v.26). We are all intricately connected, even though we walk around in isolated bodies.

My chant of “drive with love” may seem trite when compared to other, more pressing suffering in the world, but it is how I work on cultivating my heart of compassion every day. I know that if I can master myself on the road, I can master myself in any situation. If I can begin to see that all the other metal boxes around me contain people just like me, who laugh, cry, bleed and suffer in exactly the same way I do, then I can begin to release my judgment (especially if someone cuts me off or, heaven forbid, slams into me) and grow a genuine unconditional love for those around me. Driving to work each day is my classroom, my meditation time, my opportunity to cultivate my heart of compassion.

What situations test your patience? When are you most likely to strike out at people or judge them? Is it driving to work? Is it while waiting in line? Is it while you’re at work? Wherever you feel yourself at your most judgmental, your most unloving, make these places and times your classroom. The people around you who irritate and anger you are your teachers. They will frustrate you and test your patience at every turn. They will challenge you to show them your heart of compassion. You will not always succeed — that is when you will need to withdraw and show compassion for yourself.

During these frustrating times, remember that you are not a victim of someone who has power over you. As Fox says “we are all victims and all dying from lack of compassion; we are all surrendering our humanity together.” Refuse to surrender your humanity by judging others — instead cultivate a heart of compassion that seeks to reconnect all of humanity to the “one body and one Spirit” because we are all “called to the one hope” (Ephesians 4:4) to be complete in God where all suffering ceases.