I want to tell a story. First, I want to say that I am a failure. I have failed at being empathetic so many times that I hurt. While it isn’t always popular to talk about failure, it’s actually a great place to begin because this is where compassion starts – at the bottom. If we want to live with empathy or to teach our children about empathy, it has to come from an authentic place in us. I want to tell a story that illustrates for me the changes that I have been experiencing as I am traveling towards greater compassion for every person – whether adult or child – whom I meet.
Last week, I had an opportunity to watch myself at the post office. That might sound a little awkward, but being compassionate and empathetic necessarily includes looking and seeing – looking both inward and outward and seeing with different eyes. The post office doesn’t always elicit feelings of deep empathy, at least, not for me. I had walked in to mail a package to my daughter who is away at college. Packing random items like silly putty, a green wig, and cookies brings me great joy and sometimes, hopefully, brings her a little humor during a week filled with papers, homework, and classes. All alone inside on a Saturday, I came ready to use the self-service area. As I scratched away, trying to write her address onto the bare box, I realized that, unless I wanted to send her a box full of holes poked by my pen, I might need a label to make the address legible.
As soon as I began writing, in walked a younger woman with a couple of items to mail. Only mildly annoyed that I was no longer first and might have to wait, I plugged away at my task. If that wasn’t enough, another woman walked in, ready to use the same station. Now I was third. The switch from second to third wasn’t that difficult, actually. If we can allow change to be a relief to us, in some small way, life opens up with other possibilities. I finished up with the address, put the trash from the label in the can, looked up and smiled at the woman who was second, and took my place in line. The next part was profound for me.
While I was in a little bit of a rush, it wasn’t anything huge – just normal American productivity. Thankfully, since I had already been inefficient in having my box ready to mail, I didn’t feel superior at that moment but knew that I was rightfully taking my place. The contrast between the two women was obvious – the first was younger, probably around 30 or so, and the second was older than I, maybe 60. The first woman must have been running errands – yoga pants, a t-shirt, flip-flops for Florida. The older woman’s outfit caught my eye because it was perfect. She was wearing a pair of fabulous jeans, a crisp, white collared shirt, silver accessories, and cute little red shoes. Yes, I like fashion. She was short, trim, and full of confidence that showed in her manner.
Here’s where the story really starts for me. The first woman was moving slowly. The woman in front of me sighed and shifted impatiently. Initially, I began to feel impatient – maybe even wanted to be impatient – but I decided to be grateful that, in this world of hurry, rush, and missing people, she was giving me the opportunity to slow down. When I made that decision, I became aware of her. Just her. I realized that she was reading every single panel of the instructions carefully, following the words with her fingers, caring about everything she was doing. She was acting with great integrity and thoughtfulness, not ashamed that she wasn’t the fastest reader, not hurried because people behind her were impatient, but caring for her work and probably more importantly, the recipient. By this point, I was deeply humbled. At other times in my life, I would have been tempted to judge the older woman for her impatience, but instead, I felt sad that she couldn’t see the gift that she was being given. It was a moment to stop and breathe, to delight in the care and concern of another person, another self, and to see that every human being is valuable in every sense.
The second woman finished her job quickly, efficiently, and I was impressed that she knew exactly which buttons she wanted to push on the screen and didn’t even need to read them. I was happy for her – for her beauty and her assuredness. She completed her task, and glided out the door. As I was finishing up my part, the younger woman asked me if her things could go into the bin, and I told her that they certainly could. I was honored to even be able to speak to her. It was one of those moments when you know that you have entered the presence of grace.
Really, this is just an invitation – an invitation both to you and to me. An invitation to open our eyes in wonder and kindness. I continue to awaken to the unconscious stream that runs through my mind, hoping that, as my heart opens to new ways of seeing and new ways of loving, I can scale the walls that had been built for me and which I continue to tear down in hope.
Sue Kranz is a wanderer – through education, travel, food, faith, and friendships. Currently teaching elementary music, she plays with children every day and continues to look for new roads and big adventures.