The computer decided to play the fool, doing unmentionable things with no provocation. I’d only just sorted the email that had blocked me from answering anything, even though it let me see all the emails piling up. And, to make matters worse, I have one of these horrid winter bugs that turn your brain to mush. By the end of the day, I had tried everything I could think of… it was time to ask for help.
That can be a difficult thing to do sometimes… not for a technical problem like mine, when we are all too ready to scream for any help we can get, but for the real things that affect how we can live our lives. My son and I have been talking about this a lot since his return from India, where the kindness and compassion of the people he met there allowed him to experience many things he would otherwise not have been able to access, and indeed, had it not been for a complete stranger, a ‘knight in shining armour’, his trip could have been a disaster from the start.
What does a knight in shining armour look like? They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, quietly ready to take up the quest and tilt at windmills on our behalf. People are often ready to go to extraordinary lengths to help each other, as long as we ourselves are able to admit a need and accept the help that is offered. Compassion may see the need before we are ready to admit that it is there. It never makes a noise about itself, but simply gets to work to do what it can.
How do you define compassion? We all understand the word, but how often do we think about what it really means… both in fact and on a personal level? Looking up the definition in a dictionary, especially glancing at the synonyms, is a bit of an eye-opener and produces everything from pity to empathy. The latter is probably the best definition, as the word itself comes from the ecclesiastical Latin compati… ‘feeling with’. And that, to me, defines what motivates any act of compassion. Pity is a cold and distant thing. Sympathy looks on kindly from a distance. Compassion takes things to heart and carries them very personally. Compassion understands, if not through personal experience of the cause, then empathy and an opening of the heart. Compassion is love in action.
It is this awareness of the problems of others that allows us to place ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain, sorrow or worry as if it were our own, just for a moment, and which allows us to act in some way that feels right. It may be something practical… a cup of coffee, sleeves rolled up to help, even good advice… or it may be something more ephemeral, like a hug or a smile or a simple word that acknowledges both presence and need.
There is a selective blindness sometimes to the hurt we can see lingering in another’s eyes. If we see, we have to acknowledge and then we feel… and must act. It is, perhaps, in self-defence that we have become able to insulate ourselves and we can be good at ignoring pain. So good, in fact, that we often cover our own and pretend it isn’t there. Part of that comes down to pride… few of us like to admit we cannot cope, regardless of the problem. Some of it has become ingrained… many children are taught not to whine. Boys are still taught not to cry… girls too, though it is still seen as more acceptable. Those who do speak and air their inner hurts often make us uncomfortable, whether we care to admit it or not and we may take refuge in some kind of moral superiority, feeling that we would not have said/written/shouted that… or else we try and ignore them; pretend we don’t see… like failing to meet the eyes of a tramp in the street.
While it is undoubtedly good to learn that tears should not be a first recourse when things go wrong, that there are things we can do, choices we can make, actions we can take, it is not, in my opinion, a good thing to teach our children to stifle their feelings. To learn a modicum of control, to learn not to be enslaved by reactive emotion is a different matter, but the ability to recognise, accept and express emotion lies at the heart of compassion. How can we ‘feel with’ if we do not first learn how to feel?
There is a huge difference between the tears shed in frustration or sentimentality and those that prick our eyelids when our hearts ache and bleed for the plight of another. When we can feel at least the shadow of their pain and heartache. It is these that can move mountains and change the world. And it starts with the small things.
What does a knight in shining armour look like? He looks like the man who opens a door for a young Mum struggling with a pushchair. He looks like the woman who smiles at the beggar in the street. He looks like the child who rescues an injured bird and brings it home. He looks like the granny who puts on the kettle or the friend who sits for hours on the phone. He looks like the guy who stands by you when you tilt at windmills. He looks like anyone who meets the eyes of another with an open heart in acknowledgement of a shared humanity.
He looks like you.