Proactive Compassion

“She was a no-call no-show,” my colleague snapped.

Being stood up for scheduled meetings was a pet peeve of hers. It used to be one of mine.  Nothing’s more frustrating in the middle of a busy work day than being asked to set aside your time and energy for someone who then, for whatever reason, decides not to show up.

But what I wrote, instead of my typical frustrated agreement, was this: “I hope she’s okay.”

“She’s fine,” I received in reply.  “She was in a meeting earlier today.”

Still, I wondered.  And in truth, even if we had been stood up, I couldn’t bring myself to get terribly irritated at the culprit.  Maybe she had forgotten, or gotten busy.  We’d reschedule.  It would be fine.

This compassionate, graceful response isn’t really like me.

One of my greatest flaws and tendencies to sin is that I can be a phenomenal critic of others when their standard of behavior doesn’t meet my expectations.  But the last six months have changed me in ways that I am just starting to understand.

What started it was the simple observation of a friend of mine a while back.  I was in the trenches and, though I was only just coming to terms with it at the time, in the last weeks of my mom’s earthly life.  I was exhausted, stressed, and unbelievably sad. 

He listened while I vented and offered comforting words.  Then he said, “I’m glad you’re telling me.  It’s okay to tell people.  You’re so—” he waved a hand in my general direction “—together, no one would ever know otherwise.”

And he was right.

On some of the saddest days of my life, I got up and put my makeup on and brushed my teeth, and then I got dressed and I worked.  I led meetings, did presentations, taught.  I cracked jokes that made people laugh and made tight deadlines.

Inside, I was collapsing.  But few other people knew.

It just so happened that I was aware of other people collapsing privately during that time, too.  A coworker and friend of mine was losing her mom.  Another friend of mine was desperately trying to figure out the right medical approach to her bipolar disorder, frightened by the symptoms of the disease.  A third friend was struggling through a divorce.

Without exception, they all looked as externally functional as I did.  They came to meetings, did their work, smiled, shared pleasantries, and carried on as best they could, only dropping the façade during tearful phone calls and quiet weeping sessions over coffee.

I have been thinking about all of this as I finished Beth Moore’s memoir, All My Knotted-Up Life.  The book is deeply moving—a review is forthcoming—but I was particularly struck in the text by her citation of Proverbs 14:10: “Each heart knows its own bitterness.”

In my formative years, I admired Beth Moore as a writer and Bible scholar par excellence.  I envied her, too.  She led the life I dreamed of: teaching and traveling and writing about Jesus.  But having read her memoir, I am staggered by the depths of her personal struggle—one that her smiles and her teaching, as excellent as it is, could never have conveyed.  She, too, had her own bitterness.  I never knew, would never have even guessed.  I have my own.  My friends and colleagues have theirs.

Most of us will never know.

I joked to a friend the other day that grief is like buying a new car.  You know the drill: if you buy a new car, even if you’ve never seen it before, somehow that car becomes the only other vehicle you see on the road.  Everyone has one.  There are six in every parking lot right beside you.

And sure enough, if you suffer or grieve—if you stumble into a dark valley that feels new to you, that feels enormous—you will look up in astonishment to find six or seven people walking the same path.  Everyone is hurting, you realize.  Everyone.

And knowing this has made me kinder.

I don’t want to be the straw that breaks someone’s back.  I don’t want to offer coldness or irritation or disregard where I could offer grace instead.  If that makes me soft, that’s fine.  Other people will be more willing, I’m sure, to push back and get mad.  For me, for right now, that’s not the call. It was never the call.

What I want is to be proactively compassionate.

I understand grieving people more now because I’ve lost my mother.  And I hear similar stories about all kinds of empathy-birthed compassion: I learned more about sexism since I had a daughter.  I see what racism is like now that I have a Black best friend.  I didn’t understand why some people with disabilities made such a fuss about accommodations until I needed them.

And that’s all well and good, but we can start from a place of compassion first.  We can give the benefit of the doubt first.  When someone says, “I’m hurt,” we don’t need to have experienced that hurt ourselves to say, “I care about you, and I’m so sorry you’re in pain.”  When someone forgets to attend a meeting, we don’t have to have missed one ourselves to say, “Maybe there was a reason, and whether there was or not, I can be kind here.”

A long while ago, back when I first started my job, I made a mistake that impacted another more senior employee. I felt awful.  I couldn’t fix it.  I had to own up.  I sent her a brief but anguished apology note, well aware that my error was going to cost her significantly.

When the phone rang and I saw her name on the ID, I almost threw up.

“Hi,” I said when I answered, “I’m so—”

“Excuse me,” she said, in a way that made me fall silently almost immediately.  I assumed she was going to yell at me.  But her next words caught me off guard.  “Are you apologizing?  For being human?  Girl, no.”

I almost cried.

She didn’t know why I’d messed up or what the rationale was.  Didn’t know anything about me at all.  But in the face of an error that inconvenienced her, she chose grace and kindness.  And in doing so, though she couldn’t have known it, she salvaged my self-confidence and my hopes for that job.

We don’t know where people are, or what they need.  And we don’t know what might break them.  As I emerge from the sadness of the past several months, one of my prevailing guides has simply been to lead with compassion first.  Everything else can come later. 

Because what might be lost should I choose otherwise is profound.


4 thoughts on “Proactive Compassion

  1. I can relate to everything you’ve said in this post. Since a personal trauma in 2021, I too have found myself with a proactively compassionate attitude toward what others could be going through. Kindness and a smile go a long way. 🙂


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