At the grocery store the other day, I was struggling to hold a crying three-year-old with one arm while using the other to put my groceries on the conveyor belt when I noticed that there was a man standing there impatient that I was holding up the line (and partially blocking the way to the adjacent line between my body and my child’s body and my cart). I felt irritated that he didn’t even ask me outright to move, much less offer to speed things up by helping me with those last few items. He just stood there with obvious impatience. In my annoyance, I imagined that the man saw me as just a stranger holding up the line because she can’t handle the kids she probably shouldn’t have had in the first place.
Then it dawned on me: I don’t have to feel this way.
More often than not, I feel like I don’t have enough. I don’t have enough sleep or enough time or enough energy. I feel like I somehow deserve smooth sailing, and I feel irritated when things don’t go smoothly for me, like when my children ask for a glass of milk as soon as I sit down to eat breakfast or when fellow motorists don’t allow me to merge onto the highway (which happens with great frequency).
But I realized clearly while leaning one-handed into my cart to retrieve a bag of kale, that I choose to feel this irritation. And if I choose to feel it, I can choose not to.
Do I want people to let me merge onto the interstate? You bet. Do I want the person nearest me to help me (or at least feign patience) if I’m trying to juggle groceries and kids? Absolutely. But I’m no more (or less) worthy of compassion than anyone else, including the guy behind me and the woman bagging my groceries and the guy in the other line who’d accidentally knocked my son to the ground with his cart and caused the whole ruckus to start with. I want the world to be a place where people help each other, but that’s not going to happen if the world is tenanted only with people looking for how others can help them.
Compassion has to start somewhere; it might as well be with me.
This is what I want to do in my life—and with this blog:
I want to inspire people to compassionate action.
But how can I inspire compassionate action?
One of the things that appeals to me about doing a long-distance hike is the camaraderie and goodwill that everyone reports. Every story I read or hear about the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail is filled with hikers sharing their food or giving away other items to hikers in need, and with “trail angels” providing rides or opening their homes to provide hikers food and shelter.
And the really cool thing: the compassion one person shows seems to inspire others towards more compassionate behavior until you have a trail community with this attitude of abundance, each person looking for ways they can give to someone else.
This is a clue, I think.
Gandhi didn’t actually say, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but he did say this:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.
I don’t need to wait until other people show me compassion to show them compassion. If I show others compassion without waiting for them to earn it by being compassionate to me first, maybe this will open their hearts and encourage them to be more compassionate in turn. And if I’m on the lookout for ways that I can show compassion to others, it might just happen that I become more aware of just how many compassionate actions are directed at me each day, which will inspire even more compassionate action on my part.
In the case of the grocery store situation, rather than standing there feeling irritated, I could:
- Accept that this is the situation in this moment, take a deep breath, and just do what needs to be done.
- Feel grateful that my daughter is helping me so readily, even though she’s not tall enough to reach items at the bottom of the basket.
- Offer the impatient man a smile (because it’s natural to feel impatient in that situation), stop loading my groceries, and move out of his way. (Which is what I did, minus the smile.)
- Show compassion to myself and ask for help rather than feeling annoyed that people weren’t jumping to help me.
Above all, I need to accept the abundance in my life and be willing to share that in every moment. Compassion starts with me because I’m the only person whose actions I control. If I’m my Best Self (as I wrote long ago in my Seven Personal Commandments), maybe that will help others to be their Best Selves, too.
Or at least that’s my hypothesis.
In my next post, I’ll go into why that’s easier said than done.