Have you ever heard of “Thumper’s Rule?” In the Disney film Bambi, there’s a young rabbit named Thumper who remarks that the fawn Bambi is “kinda wobbly” and “doesn’t walk too good.” Well, Thumper’s mother doesn’t go for that kind of talk and gives him a piece of advice we all can use, a sort of verbal golden rule:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Being nice to others. It’s a baseline requirement if you want to go through life as a compassionate person. It starts with how you talk to and talk about other people. Words matter, so before speaking consider: Is what you’re about to say helpful or hurtful? Constructive or destructive? How will it make the other person feel?
Look. Listen. Forgive.
In the book The Lessons of St. Francis, How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, the musician and monastic leader John Michael Talbot shows us an alternate way we can deal with the family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances we encounter each day. It’s a small step that can make our little corner of the world a kinder, more compassionate place.
I’ve distilled Talbot’s thoughts, which were influenced by the life of St. Francis, into three primary steps: look, listen, and forgive. Here’s what it looks like in practice:
Nothing shows that you’re interested in another person like giving them your full attention. That means phone down, preferably off and nestled in your pocket or purse, and eyes focused on the person across from you. The writer G.K. Chesteron explains St. Francis’s approach to eye-contact this way:
There was never a person who looked into the eyes of Francis without being certain that Francis was really interested in them; in their own individual life from the cradle to the grave; that they themselves were valued and taken seriously.
Can’t we do the same when we talk to others? Show others they are valued and taken seriously? It starts with giving others the attention they deserve, especially when they’re engaging you in conversation.
When listening to another person, we’ve got to resist the all-too-human urge to critique what they’re saying. As Talbot states, “Compassion isn’t about whether you approve or disapprove of what someone is saying; it’s about understanding another person. It isn’t about promoting your agenda; it’s about comprehending someone else’s.” That means putting the other person first, by listening instead of waiting to talk.
Forgiveness simply means coming down from our thrones of judgement and avoiding being hostile and angry to anyone who may have previously offended us. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has value and deserves a second chance. (And your most important relationships may deserve third and fourth chances.) Talbot quotes Frederick Buechner who writes that forgiveness is a way of saying:
You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Though I make no guarantees I will be able to forget what you’ve done, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.
Anger has a way of causing us greater harm than doing us any good. As the godfather of American spirituality, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said: “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.”
In Talbot’s book, I was also reminded of a poem that St. Francis once wrote to a close friend about the nature of God. I have paraphrased it below. There may be no man, woman, or child alive today that encapsulates all these traits, but I think they are qualities we all can strive for each and every day.
You are love.
You are wisdom.
You are humility.
You are endurance.
You are rest. You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are gentleness.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage.
You are our haven and our hope.
Being compassionate means going the extra mile.
In the book Soul Boom, actor and spiritual provocateur Rainn Wilson draws a distinction between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. While we often use the terms interchangeably, there’s a difference as Wilson points out here:
- Sympathy means “I feel for you.” There’s no real emotional connection.
- Empathy means “I feel with ” You sense the other person’s pain, feel it in your own heart, and may even shed tears if you see a friend crying in pain.
- Compassion means, “I feel with you, and I am here to help.” It transcends empathy because in Wilson’s words, “if you are experiencing compassion, you are driven to action to help alleviate another’s pain.”
Wilson goes on to quote a person who knows something about compassion, the Dalai Lama: “Real compassion comes from seeing the suffering of others. You feel a sense of responsibility, and you want to do something for them.” When we try to do something for others in pain, Wilson says: “the actions we undertake, come right back around and help us with our own inner sense of bliss.” It’s a win-win situation.
The good thing about compassion: It really doesn’t require any extra effort on our part. The only requirement is that we go into the world with love in our hearts, knowing that we all carry the light of the Divine within us. It can be harder to spot in some people than others, but is there, nonetheless.
A different version of this story appears in my new book Wake Up Call: Daily Insights for the Spiritually Curious, now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.