I didn’t think much about the interaction after it took place, but I’ve never forgotten the email I received years later. It’s an important reminder of what it means to be part of social groups and what it means to look out for one another. I believe in the possibility for a peaceful world through the purposeful, intentional building of peaceful societies and communities. And I believe this requires us to step outside of ourselves and care for those who share our communities with us.
After reading and rereading an email that I was surprised to receive, I thought back to the interaction that had taken place one afternoon. I saw a student sitting in the hall in front of the lockers, a completely normal thing for a student to do, and something about facial expression or body language prompted me to follow up my greeting with, “Are you okay?” The student reassured me that all was fine, and we went our separate ways.
But, the student wrote in an email years later, all wasn’t fine and I had noticed. This student was now older, wiser, happier, and more confident in themselves and was writing to thank me for noticing them. I appreciated the email not just because of its contents, but because it indicated that the student remembered something I had forgotten, something that was more significant than I had recognized.
And this led me to think about other interactions, other moments in which we catch something in others that is, perhaps, not quite right. And then we make a choice. We can make the choice to dismiss what we see, to assume that people will come to us if they need to. Or, we make the choice to engage. This can be as simple as asking that question, “Are you okay?” or opening a conversation that we find challenging. It can be hard to share our impressions of others with them, to ask people really big questions about their lives or their choices. Sometimes we don’t realize (or won’t admit) something is wrong until somebody stops us to ask.
Even if we don’t want to have the conversation, or if the automatic, “Yes, why?” remains the response, I think there’s something really important in having been asked how you are. Like my student, I’ve never forgotten the Italian night class professor who took one look at me and asked if I was okay. I remember blaming whatever “it” was on having had a long day at work, and I don’t remember what was actually wrong. I just remember that she noticed something and she asked. On another occasion, I remember the relief I felt at someone else noticing a situation that I had tried to brush aside. “Are you okay?” meant that I didn’t have to be, meant that someone else saw what I saw.
One might argue that a simple “Are you okay?” is only good enough if the response is then acknowledged. What do we do, for example, when we were secretly hoping the person would simply reply, “Yes, why?” or when we realize that the ten minutes we’re available to talk might not be enough? I don’t want to say that there’s an art to asking this question because I don’t think there is. I think people understand when a question is genuinely meant. There is then a respect in interaction that opens an invitation when an immediate response is not possible. “Are you okay?” could indeed arrest a moment of crisis, but I don’t know how commonly that is the case.
I don’t think it has to be complicated to be a good person or to live as part of a social society. Rather, I think it is the aspect of acknowledging one another’s humanity in a natural, real way that creates such societies. There’s no harm in pausing for the moment it takes to ask someone how they are, and the ask itself might make all the difference.
I can count the number of times I’ve cried during prayer. Before Friday night, that number was one. At a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event when I was in college, we said the mourners’ prayer aloud, which I had never done before. The mourners’ prayer is recited by those people Judaism strictly defines as mourners, and then only under certain pre-conditions. To say this prayer was to move our remembrance in a direction I had not been before and have never forgotten. Until Friday night, that was the only time I’d cried during prayer.
Last Friday, I went to Erfurt, the city (population 214,000) nearest my small town (population 65,000). Erfurt is home to the only synagogue in the state of Thuringia. The presence of police were the first clue that I was in the right place, and it was only then that I noticed the Hebrew words and large Jewish star above the door. A couple was sitting in the park across the quiet street, the man wearing a kippah (or yarmulke if you prefer, though that spelling has never made any sense to me).
I sat on a nearby bench and waited. When they got up, I followed them inside. I gave my name and some general information to the elderly security guard who clearly knew everyone who was expected that evening; their names were on a list in front of him and he crossed them off as each one arrived. He pointed me towards the rabbi, with whom I’d exchanged emails the previous week. We talked for a moment and then he offered me a siddur (prayer book) with translations in German or in Russian. I’d been told that most of Erfurt’s Jewish community is comprised of Russians who left Russia around the time it became Russia. The small Jewish day school I attended as a child was much larger in the mid-nineties for the same reason.
In the few minutes before services were due to begin, elderly men talked to one another, some in German and some in Russian, others switching back and forth. One man read a Russian newspaper. The few women chose seats in one of the two reserved sections and some of them smiled at me. I wondered at the worlds these people have seen, to have come from wherever they came from, and the forces of the universe that brought them here, to the most unassuming shul I’ve ever been in. Three white walls, one blue wall, decorated windows, large wooden benches, the Ark where the Torahs are kept, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) that I always take a moment to look at where it hangs, as always, above the Ark.
The rabbi told me he’d announce the page numbers and he did, in German and then in Russian. But I didn’t need the announcements. It seemed like no one did. There’s a regulars crowd at every shul and this was clearly it. All of the prayers were said in the order that I know, as they always are. The beauty of Ashkenazi Judaism is that I knew all the variations of all the tunes, as well. I knew this to be true as soon as the first page was announced and the singing began.
And I knew some other truths, as well, as soon as I started to cry.* The tears surprised me, and the welling in my throat while writing this has surprised me.
Had you told me, at any prior point in my life, that I would be in a shul in Germany davening Kabbalat Shabbat, praying to welcome the Sabbath, I would have laughed. Had you told me that I would be in a shul here in Germany davening Kabbalat Shabbat and that the first moment of prayer would have brought tears from a reservoir I didn’t know I had, I would have given it a moment’s thought, looked for the place these tears came from, and concluded that it didn’t exist.
I would have been wrong.
When I spoke to the rabbi after the service, he understood what I was trying to say. He filled in “here in Germany” before I got to it.
Yes, here in Germany.
Before I moved here, my mum lamented that it had to be here, Germany. My sister had only good things to say about her travels and my brother had only the opposite. My grandparents likely had opinions but kept those opinions to themselves. My surname is German, as I keep being told. My family is not. It takes so little time to explain that here, far less time than it has taken anywhere else. I am living in a town that has tiny historical signs across the street from buildings that Hitler built, both to educate and inform and to prevent bad actors from demanding these places. I am living in a town that has a park dedicated to witnesses of the Holocaust and that’s all that each massive portrait of an elderly man or woman says: Zeuge. Zeugin.
Yes, here in Germany.
Knowing this, I stood in shul and, during the first moments of prayer for the second time in my life, I cried.
*Just to paint a picture that will properly capture this moment in time: I was crying while trying to sing and I was wearing a medical mask, as required indoors in Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic that has now stretched on for a year and a half with no sign of letting up. This left me reluctant to remove the mask to wipe my eyes and blow my nose lest I look ill. I was a guest, after all! I thought of comic strips and couldn’t help but laugh inwardly.
Beginning in late spring 2016, I started a post series called “Building Peace”. Two years later, I collected my thoughts into a book with the same title and have kept up the series periodically since. It has been over a year since I have specifically titled a post in this way but peacebuilding is never far from my mind.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I have been interested in compassion for a long time and that my views about what compassion is (and isn’t) have grown, evolved, and shifted. The word compassion has become increasingly popular and as a result, it has also lost much of its intended meaning. The consequence of diluted meaning is that we think we’re all doing just fine behaving just the way we are . . . when in fact we are not.
Let’s start with some definitions.
With a little help from my favourite dictionary
According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper’s truly hilarious account Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the meaning of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. In my personal experience, compassion is often linked with both care and empathy but these also have very different meanings. Empathy is the more nuanced of the two and Merriam-Webster provides two definitions:
1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner –also: the capacity for this 2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
So, compassion means understanding someone’s distress and desiring to alleviate it. Empathy means, in colloquial terms, putting yourself in the shoes of another person to understand their place and perspective. Empathy means that you need to understand. Compassion means that you need to act.
Who is compassion for?
Not too long ago I wrote about why people choose not to act. I have also written that compassion is a practice and that it takes work and time and, significantly, the desire to do good or do what is right. I have tended to focus on compassion between individuals and through this focus, I think I’ve missed some fundamental points. This post attempts to take a more nuanced view of compassion than I have taken in the past.
A few conversations with several people, some reflections on religious texts, and a Theory of Knowledge lesson on consequentialist ethics (among others) has led me to an idea that differs from what I have written previously. Rather than being between and for individuals, compassion is for the community.
Jane is an experienced teacher new to my school. She spends most of her time putting together colourful documents and showing them off to others. She misses planning meetings with some colleagues (although attends others), comes to work over the weekend to mark papers (although takes weeks to return anything to her students), and repeats herself frequently in conversation. Jane operates on a highly rigid structure that she is proud of and claims works for her, but she seems constantly overwhelmed. Despite this, she volunteers for additional tasks and amends work that others have created, leading to yet more colourful documents. It is not uncommon for Jane to ask how a colleague approached a particular lesson only to launch into a detailed explanation of how she, Jane, redesigned each of the resources that had been previously created for collective use.
What should a compassionate colleague do with Jane?
You may answer that the colleague should mentor her, talk with her, share their own resources, or offer suggestions about different ways of working. Maybe they should partner with Jane on her projects and split up the work, or take on some of her tasks.
Maybe our compassionate colleague should do all of these things, but they will soon learn that Jane will just continue along the way Jane always has. So they could choose to invest time in Jane but they already have evidence that Jane is unlikely to take any advice. Nevertheless, she might need someone to talk to. Okay, let’s provide a listening ear here and there, perhaps over lunch.
But what if the right thing to do with Jane at this point is to recognise that Jane has made a choice to resist help? Doing this allows the reallocation of time to those in my community who might actually benefit.
This is where we run into problems: It’s relatively easy for us to identify a specific and obviously suffering person and do something for them that will make us feel good. However, doing so misses the fundamental point that there is much more that we don’t see. By devoting our time and energy to a single individual, we miss a far greater responsibility, which is that to our community.
I argue here that the community needs to be highlighted and emphasised in our discourse on compassion. Far too often, we devote our time, energy, and resources to relatively few people at the detriment to and neglect of others around us. There are many reasons why we might do this: ego in feeling useful, the sunk cost fallacy in which we’ve already given one person so much of our time that we don’t want to give up, and fear of being wrong about our decision to help someone in the first place. The point remains the same: We have a responsibility to the communities we have chosen to be part of.
Let’s consider three items to consider: 1. What does this mean and how does this work? 2. Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community? 3. Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.
What does this mean and how does this work?
If we consider compassion as part of our responsibility to a community, this means that we need to look much more broadly than we are accustomed to. It means being aware of those around us, and not only when they’re upset in the ways that we are used to seeing people upset. This varies significantly by culture, which is another piece of this puzzle. Rather, we need to see one another to know each other, and through doing so, we need to cultivate connections with others even in the smallest ways.
Considering ourselves compassionate means that we are available for those around us before they reach the point of needing to be held. There is a great deal of research on the importance of social connection that I will not reiterate here, but do take a look. Here’s a link to start you off.
Compassion is, therefore, an attitude that we can take in our interactions and approaches to others at any time. I’ve written at length about adopting principles as attitudes and I think this is an appropriate lens. If I am a compassionate person, this is the way I see the world. Choosing times to act compassionately while neglecting that principle at other times does not equate.
Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?
I will focus on education here because this is a chosen realm in which I can actually say a thing or two. Even if you are not part of an educational community, please read on. I hope you will be able to apply what I say to your own context – and I’d really like to hear about it!
Let’s consider the people who work in schools, specifically people responsible for teaching and learning. This means administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff. These are the people who have specifically chosen to be in a school context. Regardless of the reason for that choice, all of these adults are responsible in some way for the teaching and learning that will help shape young people. They carry a duty to raise these young people in certain ways.
If it is evident that some people do not behave in accordance with the purposes and practices of a community, they should be asked to modify their behaviours or be invited to leave. They have entered into a social contract with these young people and are responsible for their end of it.
In the context of education, the primary responsibility of all of these adults is first to the students in their care. My actions should be framed around how a certain decision, special event, or daily occurrence will impact students. This means that when we think about compassion, we need to consider the overall impact of our actions on the community that exists to support students, not only the impact of one individual’s choice on another.
The purpose of this post is not to provide guidance on how to make choices but to point out our tendency to fixate on individual relationships and forget that we are actually part of something much bigger. The purpose of this post is to argue that we need to ask very different questions than we are in the habit of asking. Our concern should not stop with the recognition that an individual colleague or student is overwhelmed. Rather, it should extend to consider who else might be feeling similarly, why that is, and what we can do to create a better environment for all. This is what it means to reframe our discourse on compassion.
Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.
I agree that this is sometimes the case. We choose our friends, not our families, and many of us are born into a culture, heritage, ethnic group, or religious tradition (or some combination thereof). Even without a choice, the outcome is the same. If we want parts of our lives to work in certain ways, we are responsible for building that. Kant’s categorical imperative states that our behaviour should reflect what we wish to be universal law. A really simple way of putting it: If you do X, imagine a world in which everyone else does X.
My guess is that most people would prefer a world in which we actively look out for each other rather than invest our time and energy into one squeaky wheel. And my other guess is that there’s far more of the latter going on than the former. This is why we need to start asking different questions and making different choices.
So even if you did not choose to be part of a community, you are. As stated above, I do not believe that anyone should be forced into a community that they do not want to be part of. In the case of voluntary communities, you can leave at any time. Even involuntary communities are, to some extent and barring extremes, voluntary. Making the choice not to leave does not privilege any individual over the collective community fabric.
Compassion as peacebuilding
A long time ago, I identified building peace as the purpose of education. The linked post explains how I arrived at this view. Compassion is part of peacebuilding because it is with compassion that we relate to others in ways that recognise all parts of their humanity. In doing so, we also recognise our own.
From writer Susan Sontag:
“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
This is precisely why it is not enough to talk about, think about, and bandy about compassion. Being compassionate cannot be reserved for the easy and obvious moments and we cannot wait for someone else to show us what to do. If we are human and those around us are human, if we are part of a community, and if we actually cast a wide look around rather than fixating on one visible point . . . this is action. These are our actions. And acting in this way opens the possibilities of deeper connection, and a more peaceful and more just world.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place