I'm not the most compassionate guy. But ever since I started having some semi-serious health problems, and the depression that accompanied them, I've become quite a bit more understanding of what other people are struggling with in their daily lives.
The Buddha said that life is suffering. He was right on.
Almost invariably, when I talk with someone about my physical and mental problems, the person I'm conversing with will bring up their own problems that I wasn't aware of before. Or mention what a near and dear one is going through.
Now, I realize that this isn't exactly groundbreaking news -- that people have problems. I'm simply gaining a deeper direct experience of an indisputable reality.
Life is tough.
For almost everyone. And that almost can be eliminated if I add "For almost everyone at some time." No matter how good things are going now, they're going to take a turn for the worse at some point.
Take me. My primary doctor used to say at my annual physical, when I'd have just about zero complaints, "Brian, you're my poster child for growing older." Well, not so much anymore.
Yet I look perfectly fine. As do lots of people who are struggling with a physical or mental problem that doesn't come advertised with crutches, a wheelchair, babbling incoherently, or whatever.
So what I try to do now, having gotten my grade in Compassion 101 up to maybe a D + level, is look upon everyone I encounter, whether stranger or friend, as someone who is hurting in some way that I'm probably not aware of.
That person who is driving way slow in front of me on our rural road when I can't pass and am late for a downtown appointment... they deserve compassion, not irritation, because they're hurting.
That person who is taking forever at the grocery store checkout lane to find their glasses and punch in a debit card code... they deserve patience, not a frustrated stare, because they're hurting.
That person who is challenging me on Facebook because we have way different political views and they seem to be making no sense... they deserve a gentle response, not an irate tirade, because they're hurting.
Sure, I don't live up to these ideals all of the time. Maybe not even most of the time.
But at least I'm starting to recognize some simple truths that should have dawned on me before now, but didn't until I started to walk in the Shoes of Struggle that so many other people have walked down much longer paths than I have.
Helping me in this regard are those who talk about their troubles in a humble, brave, honest fashion. Whether you do this on social media or in person, I'm hugely appreciative when you share your own story of struggle.
I feel less alone. I feel inspired. I feel more capable of carrying on.
I've found that even though it isn't really a good idea to regale somebody with your troubles when, say, I'm at Trader Joe's and get asked by the clerk, "How's your day going?," there's an alternative to "Just fine, how about you?" Which is...
"I've had better days."
Recently I tried out a variant after being asked "How are you?" I said, "I've been better."
Because we were in a rather private setting, and I knew the person, that led to a good honest conversation about how I actually wasn't doing all that well, and neither was this woman's husband, who had some health issues of his own that he was struggling with.
I've always enjoyed a quote from the movie, Shadowlands: We read to know we're not alone.
Well, this also is true: We talk with others to know we're not alone. Particularly when the talking goes beyond superficialities and touches on the intimate reality of our lives.
Including our troubles, our pain, our hurting. No, even more: especially our troubles, our pain, our hurting.