My work affords me opportunities to see the worst and best of human behavior. I am continually amazed at the cruelty of human beings and equally amazed by our ability to be compassionate, and loving. Some time ago I had the privilege to know two sisters who were victims of unspeakable acts of violence. I was sitting with the oldest, age five, playing a game. She drew a card that said, “Name 2 things you love.” The young girl looked at me with confusion in her light green eyes. “What is love?” she asked. Not too long afterward I watched her two-year-old sister gently touch the face of a crying child. Then she placed her tiny arms around the other child in an attempt to provide comfort. Where does the capacity for compassion and love come from when you have never known compassion and love? What creates this ability? What makes it grow and thrive in our lives? What snuffs it out?

Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist, says, “Compassion is always born of understanding, and understanding is the result of looking deeply.” I think he is saying when we look deeply within ourselves and at another being, we see our common plight. We know what it is to suffer. We understand that we are not different from one another. Being in touch with this knowing gives us compassion for others. The Little Prince reminds us, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”

Are we born knowing how to be compassionate? Or is it only through being shown love and compassion that we can give love and compassion? If we can only know what we have been given, then how did that two year old girl give compassion when she had never known it herself? Is it both? We are born with the capacity to be compassionate and it grows when nurtured? And if so how much nurturing does it take? How does a person maintain the capacity for compassion when most of his experiences are painful, and degrading? And what drives compassion out of us?

Do we remove the ability to be compassionate when we teach children that their needs are more important than the needs of another?  Or when we teach them that other beings are objects that they can use to meet their own needs? Or is it the small choices that we make every day that erode our compassion for each other? The averted gaze when we see a person who is homeless. The distance our judgments create between us and others we see who are suffering. Judgments like- “He wouldn’t be homeless if he got off his butt and got a job.” “It’s her fault he beats her, she won’t stand up for herself and leave.” “She would be able to feed her kids if she worked harder.” Or is it all of these things and more that steal our compassion for one another? Much like the power of tiny droplets of water that over time erode the surface of a rock.






Toto and Me

In sixth grade my choir put on the musical, The Wizard of Oz. I loved to sing but lacked belief in my ability to sing. I felt I got away with singing in a choir because no one could hear me. I recall my choir teacher , Ms. Rose, asking me to try out for a singing part in the musical, specifically the part of Scarecrow but I refused. I was too frightened to sing alone. My younger brother had a beautiful voice and was often asked by relatives to sing and sometimes for me to hush when we were singing together with the radio. I am sure that those experiences did not help with my confidence.

I decided I would only be a part of the large ensemble pieces. When I learned that I had to sing in a small group of students to practice parts, I opted out of that too. I was going to be the only student who would not participate in the musical because I refused to sing when I thought people could hear me.

Ms. Rose was not okay with me sitting out of the production but there was nothing she could do to change my mind. I was terrified to sing. One day she came to practice with a new script. She explained that they needed someone to play Toto. I jumped at the chance. I could be a dog. Dogs don’t have to sing!

For my audition I crawled around on my hands and knees and did my best imitation of a dog’s bark. I even added the little tilt of the head that dog’s sometimes do when they are trying to get your attention. It worked. I was Toto! Of course now I realize that I was going to be Toto whether I had been good at playing a dog or not. Ms. Rose was not going to allow one student to sit on the sidelines.

I practiced and practiced. I tried different barks. I worked on my growl. I studied my dogs at home. I put my heart into the role. When the big night came I was ready. I wasn’t going to play a dog I was going to be a dog. I followed Dorothy everywhere. I growled and barked at the Wicked Witch of the West. I pulled the pants of the monkeys and the guards. I retrieved the oil can that was dropped. People told Ms. Rose how amazed they were at my performance. They asked,” How were you able to get her to act so much like a dog?”

This is both a happy and sad memory for me. I am proud of my role as Toto. I was an excellent dog! I am also sad that I felt so incompetent that I wouldn’t even try to sing. I am grateful to Ms. Rose for finding a way to include me and for encouraging me. She gave me the opportunity to shine in a way that felt safe to me. She also taught me the power of listening deeply, and the importance of understanding and responding to the unspoken need. And for that I am eternally grateful.

New Year’s Resolutions

January 1st the day of New Year’s  Resolutions. I am always uncomfortable when people inquire about what New Year’s Resolution I made since I stopped making New Year’s Resolutions years ago. I stopped making them because I never kept them. At some point it felt like I was lying to myself. I really want to be impeccable with my word like Don Miguel Ruiz says in his book, The Four Agreements. That means that I have to keep the promises I make to myself, as well as the promises I make to others. I am much better at keeping the promises I make to others.

So, this year instead of a New Year’s Resolution I have decided I am making a daily commitment. It isn’t so intimidating to commitment to a behavior or task each day, as it is to say that I will make this huge change in my life. I know myself well enough to know that I will become overwhelmed by a large goal.

But what daily commitment should I make? I can think of at least ten things I want to change in my life. I can’t focus on all of them because that gets me back to an overwhelming place. How do you choose when all of them will impact your life positively? Should I be kinder? Should I meditate more? Should I eat better? Should I exercise more? Should I spend more time creating? Should I spend more time riding my horses? I don’t know how to choose between them. Maybe the answer is to pick one and begin and once it is established as a routine part of my life, move on to the next one. In this manner I would change my life for the better without making a promise I know I would never keep.

It takes twenty-one days to create a habit, so in theory I could do one daily commitment for twenty-one days and be able to move on to the next one. I know in order for me to do my daily commitment it has to be something I feel passionately about doing and that I see a benefit in doing . My greatest challenge in doing a daily commitment is I am passionate about the work I do and it takes up a great deal of time as a result. It also creates an imbalance in my life which is why I need daily commitments. Stopping my work at a certain time, going in later, taking a break in the middle of the day are all things I could do. I also know how very difficult for me that will be to do. I need to adopt the mindset that when I do my daily commitment it makes me better at my job. Being excellent at my job is a high priority. So, for me daily commitments have to be personal, and have meaning in order for me to be successful in doing them each day. It sounds like a recipe for success- now for the hard part- putting it into action and continuing to do it for twenty-one days!