Monday, October 24, 2011

Compassion Ain't My Fashion...Or Is It?

Back in college when I worked as a coffeehouse manager, I believe I was known in some circles as a hard ass. If you had a headache during your shift, it was only going to annoy me. If a late night made you even more tired for the morning rush, I would tell you to pull it together. And if the blender spewed smoothie all over your shirt, I would likely laugh.

That last scenario was one that first made me aware of my cold, cold heart. We had a line out the door and my sweet, sensitive coworker was visibly frantic over the sight of all the people. In his frenzied state, he went to make a smoothie, forgot to put the lid on the blender, and was quickly doused in a wave of pink goo. As I laughed, he ran back into the kitchen and burst into tears. And all I could think was, you've got to be kidding me. 

I tried to be nice, but all I wanted to do was smack him in the arm and yell, "Get Over It! It's just strawberry yogurt! No one is going to die you big baby!"

Given that irritation has been my reaction to a lot of people's misfortune over the years, I was surprised when Mr. Wonderful used "compassionate" to describe me. We were flying home from visiting his family in St. Louis, and I duped him into telling me what he thought my top 3 strengths were so I could complete an exercise I was reading about in O Magazine.

He said that I'm compassionate because I worry about other people's well-being and cry all the time when I'm watching sad TV shows and movies. I had never thought about that being a sign of sympathy, but I guess he's right.

A few days later, I was engrossed in Oprah's new LifeClass webcast, and someone (maybe Iyanla Vanzant?) said something that struck a chord in me as the key to being a compassionate person. She was talking about one of the troubled viewers and she said, "Everyone just wants to know that they matter."

It was like someone had given me a magic pill that suddenly caused all human interaction to make sense.

The whiny barista with menstrual cramps just wanted to know someone heard she was in pain. The relative who called then sent two emails because I didn't respond fast enough just wanted to know I hadn't forgotten about them. The guy with strawberry smoothie all over his shirt probably just wanted to be told he didn't look like a fool in front of all those people. They all just wanted to know they mattered.

We all just want to know we matter to someone, don't we?

I feel like I've learned a new mantra to apply when someone is bugging me. It makes me want to put a hand on their shoulder, tell them I see them and that it's going to be okay.

So maybe Mr. W wasn't so wrong in his assessment. Maybe there's hope for my fractured sympathy bone after all.


  1. Compassion and caring go hand in hand. It runs in the family. Don't overlook those who care for you; as you in turn are a caretaker of others. Are you turning into your mother!

  2. Had Mr. W had a couple of drinks? Love you, but that might not have been in my top 3 for you. So glad you are becoming compassionate right before I am ready to go on vacation with your for a week!

  3. Wait. A dude cried in the kitchen because of a spilled smoothie? There's no compassion for that. Sorry. None. That being said, I have the PERFECT guy to set him up with.

  4. Ok, I agree that people want to know they matter. Like you, I cry at the sad TV shows (sometimes sad commercials, too - total softie!). But, seriously, crying over spilled smoothie? I'm pretty sure I'd laugh my ass off, too ... because, ummmm, it's funny ... and if you can't laugh at yourself, where's the fun in that???

  5. Anonymous - I don't think I've quite reached caretaker status...unless you count the cats.

    Sister - Haha no no drinks! It reminded me of when your daughter used compassionate to describe herself and I laughed. Maybe my twin and I are both compassionate after all.

    Hunner - He did. He was very sensitive and theatrical, so although it was a surprise he actually cried, it sort of fit his M.O.

    Nilsa - Yes, the smoothie spill was for sure more laughable than sympathy-generating. But I probably could have been a little nicer about it to him in that moment. :P

  6. Iyanla Vanzant is usually pretty right on. I like her!

    I think it is true (I might have read this from her before?) and I try to remember that "needing to matter" is the driving force behind most people's actions, especially when I am at my wit's end. I don't always do a good job but I try.

  7. People do want to be heard and know that they matter.

    But I know someone who needs to know that she matters every day, for a 20-minute long conversation about how awful her life is, while I nod and cluck sympathetically.

    Sometimes I want to say, "You're not the only person on the planet who matters" but I don't. I just think it and try and breathe my way through the litany of sufferings this person endures on a daily and ongoing business, with no end in sight.

    All helpful suggestions are brushed away as impossibilities. It's kind of torture to listen to, to be honest.

    Usually I'm pretty good at compassion. But this person has sucked me dry of it.


Well, whatdya think?