Still More Grocery Store Lessons: Who Deserves Compassion?

I’ve written about my realization that feeling a sense of scarcity and like the world owes me something is a choice and that I can choose to feel differently. I’ve written about how much better showing compassion feels than feeling annoyed does. Now I come to the third thought that’s been percolating since my grocery store trip the other day:

Who deserves compassion?

I’ve been thinking about my indignation that no one helped me when I was trying to unload my grocery cart while holding my crying toddler. I’ve been trying to reason through why they wouldn’t have helped me. They might have felt like it was an invasion of some sort to offer to put my groceries on the belt for me. They might have worried that they would offer, and I wouldn’t want their help. Maybe I looked so capable, they thought I had a handle on the situation (I’ve been accused of appearing too capable).

While writing my post about kids in public (“These Are My People”), I read many other posts about children in public places, and since then, I’ve been hearing the echoes of some of the comments on those posts. Things like (and these are a conglomeration of paraphrases, not direct quotes), “I’m childless by choice. Why should I have to deal with kids?” or “They’re not my kids. I’m not responsible for them.” or “If she can’t handle her kids, maybe she shouldn’t have had any/so many.”

With all of these notions jiggeting about in my head, what I assumed at the grocery store was that people were thinking that I didn’t deserve their compassion—much less their assistance—because I had children. And the reason it took hold is that it felt valid: I often do feel like I’m in way over my head and like I shouldn’t have had kids. And it’s true, no one else is responsible for me and my kids. But does my making different choices mean I am unworthy of compassion?

I have no way of knowing what the people in the grocery store were actually thinking because I didn’t ask them, but this got me thinking: If I don’t deserve compassion—and help—because I chose to have kids, who does deserve them? (I’m going to be using “help” and “compassion” pretty interchangeably in this post because I think they’re closely related.)

What if I’d been having trouble lifting my groceries onto the conveyor belt not because I was holding my crying child but because I was in a wheelchair? Would I be deserving of help then? Would it matter why I was in the wheelchair?

What if I were in the wheelchair because I had been paralyzed in a skiing accident?

What if I were in a the wheelchair because I’d been paralyzed in a drunk driving accident? What if I had been the drunk driver?

What criteria make a person deserving of compassion? What’s the risk of helping someone who doesn’t meet those criteria?

Even if there were a person undeserving of compassion because of their choices, are we confident we’re making an accurate judgement just by looking at someone? I judged the impatient man at the grocery store as unworthy of my compassion, but for all I know, he had lost his own child at some point and now he finds it painful to be around children. Maybe he was abused or lost a parent when he was a child. Maybe it had nothing to do with kids at all. Maybe he was out of work and preoccupied with whether he had enough money to pay for his groceries, and my kids and I were adding to his burden. Or maybe he really was judging me for no good reason.

The thing is, there’s no way to know what’s behind someone’s actions just by looking at them.

I believe that we’re more likely to be influenced by people who help us feel better about ourselves than by those who inspire us to feel crappy about ourselves. In that way, helping someone and giving them the gift of compassion seems the safer risk than punishing them with a dirty look or by withholding my assistance. Believing this, as I’ve admitted, doesn’t mean I automatically walk that talk. But I want to be the kind of person who not only believes in compassion but practices it, too.

When I first started this blog, I was working on a Happiness Project. As part of that project I developed Seven Personal Commandments:

  1. Be My Best Self.
  2. Assume positive intent.
  3. Love.
  4. Don’t jump to solutions.
  5. Give until it feels good.
  6. Risk looking silly.
  7. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

These commandments have been coming to mind a lot since that grocery store trip. I want to be my Best Self by letting my indignation go, assuming positive intent, and treating others—and myself—with compassion. I want to look around and think, “These are my people,” and I want to love those people, whether they seem lovable or not. When I encounter someone in need, I want to err on the side of caution, let go of judgment, and give compassion until it feels good, even if I worry I’ll look silly or make a mess of my attempts to help.

This week, I decided to add an eighth commandment, one that I think is implied by the sixth and seventh, but which I need to have spelled out for me.

I want to add:

8. Talk to strangers.

I usually prefer not to talk to strangers, but I’m starting to realize the benefits of the practice. Just at the grocery store that day, talking to a stranger allowed me to have the peaceful, warm feeling that came from giving compassion to the man who’d knocked over my son. If I’d talked to more strangers that day, I might have explained my situation to the man behind me and made a connection with him rather than making assumptions about his motives. I might have asked for the help that I wanted rather than feeling indignant that people weren’t meeting my needs. Talking to strangers might just help me to learn some of those back stories that are always so hidden. It might help me to get to know the people around me better and to form connections that will make me more a part of my community.

Do you talk to strangers? Do you help them? How do you decide to give that help?

2 comments

  1. Hickersonia · November 18, 2012

    I had an occasion this week that I’m still digesting mentally that I think fits a bit with what you’re saying here. I was at work, heading out to one of my breaks, and a guy was in the break room standing in front of our ice machine. I didn’t look terribly closely at him, but my mind wondered “why is this wierdo standing indignantly in front of the ice machine?” I clocked out, went outside, and returned fifteen minutes later to find him still there, now with the supervisors trying to talk to him.

    I paid the situation no mind really at that point and went back to work.

    I found out the next day that the guy was standing there, effectively going into a diabetic coma. Paramedics were called and he is fine, but I find myself wondering what exactly in my mind was “broken” so that I didn’t even ask the guy how he was or what he was doing standing there.

    The question I have now is whether it is possible that the other people in the store (in your situation) were just plain oblivious to the fact that you could have used some help?

    I think most people are good-intentioned, but equally as many are so oblivious to anything that isn’t “their concern” that they’d let someone keel-over before offering assistance. Clearly I’m no better… although I hope I have learned something this week that will help me be better in the future.

    I think your new #8 rule is one I ought to adopt as well…

    Be well, friend.

    Like

    • CJ · November 18, 2012

      Wow, that is really intense. I don’t know that I would have gone up to a him, either, but when I think about it, I don’t really know why. What would keep me from just asking someone if they were okay? I think there’s something in Social Psychology to explain this (the Kitty Genovese murder and the bystander effect come to mind), but that doesn’t really help explain why I (or any one individual) wouldn’t say something.

      It’s something to ponder, for sure. Thank you for sharing this story.

      Like

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