James Forbes, in a Ted Talk, discussed what compassion meant to his family of 10 growing up in the South. The talk is titled ‘Compassion at the dinner table.’ Google it. It’s worth your time.
In the talk, Forbes laid out an old Southern family ritual from his North Carolina childhood. Every night at the dinner table when something significant had happened to any one of them (with 10 children you can imagine something was always going on) - everyone took five or 10 minutes to “make over” that person. That is, according to Forbes, the family made a fuss over the one who had been honored. “For when one is honored, all are honored.”
During these family dinners where they learned to show compassion and support to each other, they also had to report on the people they had helped over the past week. Forbes said family dinners meant telling about the ones in their extended family or those sick and elderly neighbors they visited during the past week. According to his mother, “To be family is to care and share and to look out for one another.” They learned these things through the actions of visiting and being with each other, showing support, throughout the week.
So every evening at the dinner table, Forbes was taught an essential lesson, perhaps without even recognizing it - compassion. Compassion for the people you live with, compassion for those in your family and community, and compassion for the elderly.
All large religious traditions hold fast to the tenent of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” a.k.a. the Golden Rule. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Popular self-help books and research aimed at helping us be more joyful, often tout that the way to achieve it may not lie within yourself, but in your relationships at the dinner table (like the Forbes’ family) and interactions with others.
A major component of compassion is giving back - being supportive when someone you know gets a promotion or is named Student of the Week. Compassionate people act on their kindness - with their words and actions - whether it be through volunteering or by being there to listen when someone needs you.
“Compassion is a piece of vocabulary that could change us if we truly let it sink into the standards to which we hold ourselves and others, both in our private and in our civic spaces,” says journalist Krista Tippett who hosts the show On Being.
Compassion can express itself through just being there, just showing up. Compassion is visible. When we see it, we recognize it and it changes the way we think about what is doable, what is possible.
Compassion is the local husband and his wife who, a few months ago, took in a child whose family was living homeless in our community (yes, Pickens County has homeless people). They took her into their home, provided her with food and shelter and care. It seemed horrible at first, from the outside, to see her taken away from her family. But today, she is thriving thanks to a roof under which she gets a full night’s sleep, dentist visits to fill numerous cavities that went unchecked for years, and tutoring that is catching her up in school. That is compassion expressed in a very real way.
Compassion is every volunteer who walks in the door at the local animal shelter to spend time with a helpless animal who needs love and kindness. Compassion is CARES and the Talking Rock Baptist church that both give out food no questions asked. Compassion is the Good Samaritan volunteer who stays later than she is scheduled in order to help make sure that patient has someone to sit with while they wait. Compassion is the many teachers in our community who are unsung heroes to so many children who need a role model to look up to.
So while compassion may be described by Merriam-Webster as “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.,” these people define compassion for us.