A Prayer for a Compassionate Heart

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you . . .”Matthew 7:12

As I descended the hill and made my way onto a major Ohio route, I saw the flag in front of me.  During these schismatic political times, I am not unfamiliar with numerous political variations of the American flag, but this one really bothered me.  I could feel its venomous bite, and like a poisonous snake, its toxin worked its way gradually into my consciousness.  

What is the purpose of a flag filled with hateful words?  Do they have kids?   If so, were they okay with their own children seeing those words?  This was also a major school bus route; those students would also read those words.  Did they think about them before hanging it up?  On and on my mind chewed on this image like one tries to chew taffy with its sticky consistency adhering like glue.

Miniature Old Glory hangs in my classroom.

It wasn’t long before a stereotypical image began filling my mind regarding the type of person who chose to hang the controversial flag.  Soon enough, the flag message became fodder for a few of my conversations–that is until my consciousness began to send me pangs of remorse and guilt.  

“Steph, you are pigeon-holing people you haven’t even met yet.  You don’t know that person, nor do you know the life they have lived.  Who do you think you are?  What makes you so great to sit in judgement?”

On and on my consciousness scolded me.  Then, came the remembrance of an image.  It was from my third grade classroom.  A small framed principle was hung beside the long ago classroom door, allowing it to be visible to those of us inside the classroom.  I was seated in the front of the classroom, due to my height, in a desk near the door, and consequently, the sign.  The image was embossed with golden flourishing, and the lettering was classically formatted in a bold black scripted font: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  

As seen on Instagram @ drwaynedyer.

As best I can remember, this classic tenet was dulled with age, lacked any eye-catching appeal, and therefore I am fairly certain it wasn’t something to which I paid particularly close attention.  While memories of my third grade are as faded as that long-ago picture, I do seem to recall our teacher, Bonnie McKenzie, referring to the picture, from time to time, when any one of us was not acting kindly towards one another.  In fact, I have a hazy recollection of Ms. McKenzie, once standing beside the picture, and firmly instructing us that this was the most important rule in our classroom. 

It occurred to me that I had seen the very same thing somewhere in my grandparent’s house, but like all third grade minds, it wasn’t a precept I fully understood.  Rather, I interpreted it as a reminder to, “Be nice.”  Not that I always applied it, after all, I was a third grader, and life wasn’t always fair, but I’d like to think I mostly tried . . . at least until those angsty, hormonal teen years . . .

Regardless, I am now no longer a fledgling third grader and absolutely capable of understanding the golden rule more fully.  Therefore, I continued to wrestle with my consciousness over my self-imposed verdict of the flag for the rest of the evening.  My mind kept circling back to that darn third grade image, and I knew that if I was talking negatively about this unknown person, I was NOT practicing my beloved teacher’s guideline. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure Ms. McKenzie was as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us, but I would like to believe that it was important to her that she imparted the importance of this rule, above all others, to her students.  Thus, that is how I settled my mind.  

Do unto others the way your cat peacefully loves you! 😉

“To keep the Golden Rule we must put ourselves in other people’s places, but to do that consists in and depends upon picturing ourselves in their places.”–Harry Emerson Fosdick 

While I’d like to believe I’ve lived through a wide array of situations and therefore have a wide breadth of informed life experiences that grant me permission to quickly judge or criticize–it is one of my greatest ego-driven flaws.  One could argue, as I have, that the ability to discern quickly can be a strength in certain situations. However, quickly drawing conclusions is still deduced from my limited life experiences and perspective rather than taking time to place myself in the shoes of the other person.  

As the strangely linked cogs of my stored memories continued to churn their mental back and forth, my mind led me down another deep recess to the remembrance of an additional memory:  Rev. Larry Brisker, my one time pastor, teaching his flock about the concept of “agape love.”

Pets offer us unconditional love–no matter how we act, what mood we’re in, or what political/personal beliefs we have.

“Agape love is selfless love . . .the love God wants us to have isn’t just an emotion but a conscious act of the will–a deliberate decision on our part to put others ahead of ourselves.  This is the kind of love God has for us.”–Billy Graham

I cannot pretend to be an expert of Bible scripture, but I do faintly recall first learning about the concept of agape love from Rev. Brisker.  It was one of those rare teenage times when I truly focused on the sermon. (Sorry, Rev. Brisker, I wasn’t always focused, but in all fairness, I was awash in those darn, distracting teenage years.) As best as I can recall, Rev. Brisker’s message on agape love was based on a passage in Corinthians I often call, “The Love Chapter”.  In particular, it was the verse about the clanging cymbal that held my attention because, well, I thought it sounded cool. Ok, I was a kid, but the point wasn’t entirely lost on me.  

God loved us, period.  It wasn’t based on feeling or the hollow promises of impressive sounding words.  God’s love came from actions–not feelings–and that, Rev. Brisker explained, was the highest form of love and what we should all aspire to offer others–no matter what they believe or how they choose to act.  Of course, I am quite certain the Reverend was MUCH more eloquent than my memory.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Therefore, Dear Reader, I recount both of these faint memories to share this conclusion.  In this extended season of recent years filled with uncertainty, political divide, and one series of crises after another–both home and abroad, it was, and is, my lesson to re-learn that when I am quick to judge, that I must step back, and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.  In fact, it is my prayer that my conscience continues to remind me to refrain from acting as a loud clanging cymbal filled with noise based only upon my perspective.  The bigger picture is NOT about me. 

Instead, I pray that I may humbly be reminded, as often as needed, to extend compassion and understanding to ALL.  May I work harder to find a more gracious, warm hearted attitude, and not be so quick to render judgement.  Otherwise, I am acting in a way that could be, and has been, hurtful if/when someone quickly passes judgement upon me.  

Therefore, as the Golden Rule encourages all of us to do, may we all offer understanding and patience to others in the same way we would expect it given to us.  We don’t have to agree on all fronts to find common ground that binds us together as fellow human beings.  Agape love challenges all of us to humbly serve and offer grace to all as our Creator does for us on a daily basis.

“You can have the ‘golden rule’ do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But then you take it one step farther where you just do good unto others, period. Just for the sake of it.”–Jennifer Beals 

Treat others as you would have them treat you!
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Sun Kissed Stranger

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs.  But the world needs all the good that I can do.”–Jana Stanfield

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I was walking into a local coffee shop as I typically do nearly every Saturday morning.  It was one of those delightful early spring mornings overflowing with abundant sunshine that enlivened the brisk air.  New green grass stretched through the manicured town patches after its long winter hibernation while newly formed flowering buds and blossoms bobbed and bobbled to the rhythm of the breeze.  

Inhaling, I slowed my typical hasty pace and felt a smile forming in response to all the sensory overload.  Absorbing the glow of my surroundings, I noticed a few people, in spite of the morning chill, sitting on benches, faces tilted towards the luminescence.  Visages, unknown to me, radiating with the joy of appreciation after dreary days of darkness.

On the right side sat a young woman most likely around the age of my daughter–early to mid twenties.  Short, flaxen hair, tucked neatly behind her ears, her face wiped clean of any makeup except for lipstick, the shade of spring tulips.  Tall and curvy, she wore a lavender spaghetti strap shirt that struck me as a bit underdressed for the morning crispness, but what did I know–I am nearly always cold. Chin thrust high, eyes shut, a close-lipped smile across her face.  She seemed happy, content, and at ease.  How lovely, I thought, as I walked past her and on into the coffee shop.

It was only when I walked out of the coffee shop that I noticed what lay at the youthful feet of the woman.  There was an overstuffed worn backpack with a rather faded and worn water bottle inserted into one side of the bag that she heaved it upward in one practiced swoop.  Then, with much effort, she picked up another bag and what appeared to be some sort of walking stick.

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”–Camille Pissarro

Was she a hiker?  Maybe, but she was wearing a spaghetti strap shirt, which didn’t strike me as hiking apparel for this time of year.  Besides, if she was a hiker, why would she be in-town?  I tried to put the pieces together and kept coming up short.  As I neared my car, I looked across the street, and I watched her begin to amble away from the community patio, moving westward, the opposite direction of where I would be traveling. Her shuffle and bent back stabbed at my heart.  Then, as I took one last glance at her, with the sun on her bare shoulders, she paused, straightened her posture, tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears, threw back her shoulders, and determinedly continued moving on.

 Who was she?  What was her story?  Where was she headed?  Why was she walking around with a backpack, much less alone?  Was she okay?  Did she have family and friends who loved her?  On and on my mind spun with the worry of a mother.  

Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t truly seen her entire circumstance until she was walking away, and yet I did nothing.  I could have bought her a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, a piece of fruit, or something, yet I took no action.  Why hadn’t I been more observant?  Why hadn’t I taken time to check on her?  I felt an onslaught of self-criticism and disappointment.

My imagination was certainly getting the best of me.  There could have been numerous valid reasons for her carrying such a heavy load.  She could have been traveling solo, visiting random places off the beaten path.  Perhaps she was a university student heading home for the weekend, but why would she have a walking stick?  Maybe she was training to hike a big trail, such as the Appalachian Trail.  On the flip side, however, there were as many unfortunate circumstances that could have caused her to be so overburdened. I could not then, and still haven’t, been able to shake this young woman’s image.

Photo by Rishiraj Singh Parmar on Pexels.com

“Love calls us to look upon anyone and say: You are a part of me I do not yet know.”–Valarie Kaur

Since that encounter, I have often thought about this unknown female.  I have asked myself repeatedly why I didn’t pay closer attention upon first seeing her as well as wonder why I can’t forget her image. What lesson was I to glean from this chance sighting?  Then I read an essay in which the author’s main point seemed to say that it is the very people about whom we wonder that fosters our capacity for compassion, empathy, greater understanding, and sometimes even prompts us to take action for others for whom we see as different within our community and/or the world.  She (the author) suggested that by “seeing others as part of us we do not yet know,” we can begin to stop the cycle of separateness.

While the author’s vision was/is highly aspirational, it nonetheless was/is a catalyst for personal reflection.  Reflecting upon my own actions, I’d like to think I am open-minded and compassionate; however, there are still multiple ways in which I have failed to see others as part of me, to share another’s pain, grief, or dared to understand their seemingly self-absorptions.  In fact, some of my most vociferous and worst behaviors often occur while driving.  However, I have also been known to be guilty of a condescending look, a sarcastic thought, or even in my ability to look the other way.  While I can soften the blow and claim that I am a human being, having a human moment, it doesn’t make my actions in those moments any better, and it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work on eliminating, or at the very least, reducing them.

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“Perspective is the way we see things when we look at them from a certain distance and it allows us to appreciate their true value.”–Rafael E. Pino

My lesson to learn, at least as I presently reflect upon it, is a reminder of what I know to be true as an educator.  Every person starts as a child of someone–a symbol of hope and promise for the future.  Each child is part of a family, whether known or not, a being of a community, and a citizen of the world–the same as which we all began.  While I will never know the story of the unknown young lady, she is a part of the same humanity as me.

If the human collective could be thought of as one large web, my life would only be one of the hydrogen or oxygen atoms forming a drop of dew on one strand glistening in the early morning light alongside all of the other droplets.  If each orb of dew were a family, each uncrossed part of strand were a community, the full length of each individual strand would be a county, and the entire web would be the world, the resiliency of the web’s ability to support all of  dew drops on the strands, as well as to sustain life, depends on the integrity of each strand.  The strength of the web’s silk depends upon the bonding of various atoms to form the proteins forming the web in the first place.  If one part of the web is damaged, it must quickly be rebuilt, or the entire web will cease to exist.  To take this analogy one step further, those atoms making up the dew drops at the top of the web may perceive the green tips of grass, while those at the bottom may only discern the brown of dirt–and yet, no matter their view of the world, they all belong to the same web.

I pray that my thoughts and actions more regularly reflect the fact that every person is part of the same web of life as me.  When my brain deems someone as “another,” may I begin to habitually remember with each encounter that they are part of me that I may not yet know, and their existence matters.  I would do well to see the world from their position on the web. While it is overwhelming to think of repairing the entire web of the world, I can begin to repair, foster, and reshape my thinking and interactions within my own communities. I may not be perfect in my efforts, as the story of the young woman illustrates, but with each shortcoming, I can likewise use it as a reminder to try again.

As seen on Instagram at MyLife ( Formally Stop, Breathe, Think)