A common exercise in helping people determine what they want to do with their lives is to ask them to go forward in time to the day after they have passed away. In fact, I invite you to do the same and imagine the day of your funeral. Imagine that you are surrounded by people who knew you and cared about you. In particular, there is one person who worked with you extensively and saw you at your best. That person wants to say something about the difference you made in the world and why your life mattered. What do you want them to say? When I ask this question to students and clients, the most common response I hear is that they want to be remembered as having helped people. Effectively, people want to be remembered as having been compassionate.
I rediscovered active compassion for myself about five years ago when I was in Johannesburg for my international residency. My colleague and I were invited to spend a night in Soweto at the home of a woman named Lindiwe Leah Aida Myeza, known in the community as Ma Lindy. Incidentally, she is a national treasure in South Africa. Soweto is one of the poorest neighborhoods of Johannesburg, and you won’t find any Afrikaners living there. The home was the most modest residence I had ever stepped in. Our being there got a lot of attention from the community since a pair of white American men are not a common sight in Soweto, much less to spend the night. As a result, people from all over town brought food throughout the afternoon for us to dine on. The kitchen table was covered with all manner of local dishes and handily put any Thanksgiving display to shame. Because of Ma Lindy’s insistence, my colleague and I had to keep refilling our plates.
In the middle of the meal, we heard a loud crash and a plume of ashes kicked out of the chimney. A large rat had fallen in, no doubt following the smell of all the food. My first reaction was to either attempt to contain the rat, or my preference, to shriek in fear and find an elevated place to avoid getting savaged by this South African home invader. And then I turned my gaze to our host. To my surprise, she was quite calm and maybe even pleased. “Oh my!” She exclaimed. “He must be hungry. Please make a plate for him.” My colleague and I were completely dumbfounded and incredulous. More than anything, we were astonished at her level of compassion, particularly for a rat of all things. Here was a woman who arguably had nothing to give, and yet her instinct was to show compassion for a rat. So we filled a plate with food, and at Ma Lindy’s direction, we set it on the floor in the middle of the room and continued to eat our meals together: two white American men, a South African icon, and a common street rat.
Over the course of our conversations that night, I came to realize that Ma Lindy’s starting point, in all of her life decisions, was compassion. This might seem surprising to you, and yet, if you reflect on human nature, maybe it should be a surprise that we aren’t all more like her. According to a study by Harvard researchers, compassion is hardwired into all of us and has ensured our survival as a species (Rand, Greene, Nowak.) This being said, the same study also points out that “encouraging decision-makers to be maximally rational may have the unintended side-effect of making them more selfish.” It’s no surprise then that we are all so caught up in the details and minutia of our careers, perceived success, and other distractions, that we have collectively lost sight of one of the best and most important aspects of being human.
There are a number of other reasons for living a life of compassion. One is that we actually derive more pleasure and joy from sharing with others than receiving gifts from them (Aknin, Hamlin, Dunn). Similarly, not only does compassion feel good, but living a life of compassion is also good for your health (Pace et al.). Maybe Ma Lindy is on to something after all.
If you take a minute to go back to our starting exercise and imagine your colleagues delivering their eulogies, what do you want them to say? If it is that you want to be remembered for having helped people and lived a life of compassion, then what are you doing and what can you do to ensure that that becomes a reality?