Compassion. I think of blue-violet for spiritual strength and pink for the heart. Online dictionaries use more than 40 words to define compassion. My father used 12: never judge another man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
This phrase has hovered over me like an invisible angel, urging me toward the critical balance between understanding someone else’s pain and teetering into co-dependence or fear. The trick—so tricky indeed—is in understanding compassion’s first mandate: thou shall not judge. The second mandate is to understand that the long arms of empathy can reach around me when I need them.
I was a twelve-year-old girl, and spent time watching adults and trying to live from behind their eyes. On my bus rides to school, I would pick a person and imagine that I could see through her eyes, hear through her ears, and feel the sun on her skin. It was my small way of learning to “walk in another’s shoes.”
But by 1963, when I was fifteen, my belief in compassion was shattered as America struggled to find the compassion in its own national heart. There were assassinations—Medgar Evers and President Kennedy—the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and murder of four girls; televised scenes of fire hoses and German Shepherds as Southern bigots attacked civil rights protestors; and George Wallace’s cry of “segregation forever,” as he blocked the door to the University of Alabama. This was the year of the great March on Washington with Dr. King. But the politics of the times, not unlike those of today, belittled compassion. Empathy, it seemed, had gone with the wind.
Then there was Evelyne (not her real name).
As a high school sophomore, Evelyne was more than six feet tall, almost a full 12 inches above me. She played hockey and had muscular arms like my father who, by the way, was a brick mason. Her almond colored face had pock marks and lumps that looked as if she’d been beaten many times by fist or stick; but her eyes were large and deep brown, and, on a good day, she would smile and her face looked soft and welcoming. Evelyne was also a bully, and the day she confronted me was not one of her good days.
To say that the prospect of fighting her scared me to my very core is no exaggeration. It was all rather ridiculous; a clear case of the fox and the hen; David and Goliath; Bambi and Godzilla. I remember those brown eyes widening with disbelief as she towered over me, lowering her face into mine, as my mouth issued the challenge, “Come on!” Everyone around us laughed, but I never broke eye contact; not once.
I think I learned in that challenge that compassion was not just for others, but for my own self. It would be easy to run, or allow myself to be beaten. But really, in addition to learning to live behind others’ eyes, I had to learn to live behind my own. I had to accept my own strength, acknowledge my own right to self-protection and safety. This was the compassionate thing to do. It is a life-long lesson.
In a move that surprised us both, Evelyne laughed (well, it was more like this wheezing-growl thing as she showed her teeth), turned to her friends and said something to the effect of “It would be mean to beat up a crazy person.” Then she and her buddies walked away.
Over the years, I have been advised that empathy is our natural instinct. Perhaps Evelyne just thought I was the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen. But perhaps she, the sad victim of who knows how much abuse herself, had a moment of compassion. I will never know.
What I do know is that we are at another critical moment nationally. If we can just keep at it, just keep at it; tone down our judgments, pull back the rhetoric, stop the polarized threatening and the bullying; walk a mile in each other’s shoes. Walk a mile in each other’s shoes. Walk a mile in each other’s shoes. We may just find compassion again.