Roots of Compassion

(image via Zach Reiner)

(image via Zach Reiner)

I have just returned from leading what has been an annual event for me for the last thirty years. A ten day retreat on spirituality and community in the wilds of northern Canada called "The Temagami Experience". For three decades my partners and I have witnessed, through this work, many forms of human struggle and complexity. We have seen extraordinary acts of personal bravery, commitments to substantial change and the deepest kinds of human connection.

In all that time, there has been one over-arching lesson that I seem to sadly relearn every year. It is this. Once I know someone’s story I usually either deeply respect or even love them. What Temagami reminds me every year is that who we are is largely created from where we have been. A woman who grates another because she doesn't follow his logical thinking is suddenly seen differently because she confides she has a brain injury from an automobile accident. An elderly man who appears cold and indifferent reveals he lost three wives or lovers to cancer or sudden death within six years, and breaks down sobbing over the injustice of life. And a soft spoken woman who has trouble speaking above a whisper sadly tells the group about her life as a victim of childhood abuse.

While these are powerful stories, they are not extraordinary in their example. Thirty years has taught me that no matter who you are or where you come from, most of us are survivors of tragedy or trauma and members of what anthropologist Angeles Arrien calls, "the scar clan". It seems to be our ticket for admission to a full life.

Year after year, this pattern of conflicted strangers becoming important friends through the revelation of personal story leaves me wondering why this is so hard to remember in every new and difficult situation I face? I am learning that compassion (which means to "suffer together") is to bring an innate curiosity to every challenging encounter. To seek the "back story" of an other's behavior no matter who they are.

What separates the Dali Lama or Mother Teresa from the rest of us is not their psychic awareness. When they meet a stranger they have no more insight into their story than you or I. They do not know the story. They just assume there is one. I think they make a simple decision. That no matter who they may meet, a history of struggle and challenge exists. This not very complicated point of view then allows them to act accordingly, with the kind of love and acceptance that we "ordinary" humans take days, months or years of exploration and dialogue to create.

While it is true that our life story is not our life, it's just our story, it is also true that everyone seems to have one.