By the time I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to learn that that helping others made me feel good—I’d had ample opportunities to volunteer. Then, after my own personal challenge with illness, I knew I wanted to give back in a much bigger way, especially with children facing serious and life-threatening illness. Over the years, connecting with others in a deep way about their challenges became my life’s passion and part of my identity, whether it was by simply listening, offering advice as someone who’d been there, or doling out hugs in pediatric hospitals. As I reflect back on the nearly 30 years since my brain tumor, I now understand the richness that has come into my life through service to others.
Having been raised Catholic, I was introduced to the concepts of service and compassion early on. Recently, though, I was reminded what service is truly all about when I read two of Patch Adams, M.D.’s books: House Calls (1998) and Gesundheit (1998). Patch Adams has dedicated his life to living his passion: transforming the health care system by teaching about compassionate, patient-centered care. His story was brought to life in the 1998 film, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams.
Dr. Adam’s defines service as “helping others for the sheer pleasure of giving.” To him, service is an action word—“the physical expression of thanks to the world.” Since our busy lives often prevent us from doing service in a big way, I began to reflect on how I could be more compassionate with others in my daily life instead. Doing small things with compassion every day can have a big impact on your life and on the lives of those around you. I tried a few strategies that you may like to try as well:
Increase your compassion through daily awareness and practice
Try to do something small each day for someone else: offer a smile or exchange kind words with someone you think would appreciate it; do an errand or chore for a neighbor or acquaintance; when someone asks a favor of you, agree to it and do it with gusto; or try to understand the other’s perspective before responding automatically to what they have to say. Remember that every person you come across in a day could be having a very tough time with some matter you don’t even know about. You might even try setting goals to be more compassionate and then monitor yourself on how you are acting with others by keeping track in a journal. How well did you do? What could you do better? What did you learn from your experiences of the day?
As Patch Adam’s would say, practice “conscious listening”
We’ve all heard the importance of being empathetic, but how many of us truly step out of our lives long enough to imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes? (After all, the true meaning of compassion is “to suffer with others.”) You don’t need to know what to say or have the perfect answer. You can be honest and say, “I don’t know what you need or even what to say, but know that I’m here for you. Help me understand what you need.” These could be the best words your friend has heard in months. Let compassion be empathy in action.
Seek opportunities to be authentic
The more real we are with people, the more real they are with us. If connection is what you seek in life, then start by putting yourself out there. Allow yourself to feel sad, angry, happy, or whatever you are feeling and share your emotions with others. You may be surprised how easy it becomes to connect with others by being honest about your feelings, because this invites others to open up and be authentic with you, too. You will gain a new richness to your life. I know I have!
For an interesting discussion of science-based practices of compassion in today’s world, go here.