I was standing at a red light on the corner of Broadway and 86th Street in New York City where I grew up, when an old boyfriend tapped me on the shoulder.
“Oh my Gosh!” I screamed; it had been over 20 years since I had seen him. He looked so worn, and tired. I glanced quickly over to his left hand, to gauge if he was married, and he caught me.
“No, I’m not married” he said. “But I see you are.”
I proudly waved my sparkling diamonds around and flashed a brilliant smile.
“Yes, and we have offspring!” I announced.
“Oh” he said wistfully. “No, I never got to be that lucky. Figures you would though. Well, good seeing you, anyway” and with that, he walked away.
I stood on the corner for about a minute, trying to understand why this apparition in the form of a lost boyfriend I wanted to shout out was making itself known to me on that day, and also, why Who are you?” I felt to him: “Wait a minute! Tell me about yourself! How are you puzzled that I seem to have scared him away.
But I didn’t call out to him. Instead, I watched him slowly walk away. And that’s when I remembered. How he had walked away from me 20 years ago. Telling me that he was sorry, but it wasn’t going to work. I was crushed. I suffered for a long time after that, spending hour after hour accusing myself from head to foot of being unworthy of marriage to a man like him.
Fast forward 20 years. Here he was, worn and tired-looking and alone. And I, the picture of good health – flaunting my many riches. I had to admit it, it felt good.
As I watched him walk further and further away, however, my smile faded. I felt something towards him I had never felt before. I felt compassion for how sad and worn he looked. Why did I have to How could I have engaged him as mutual travelers in wave my rings in his face this long and winding road, where once, our paths had joined?
I tried to forgive myself for my pride, with the knowledge that we all have primitive brains that seek retribution and reprisal. If we are hurt by someone, we reflexively wish for them to get their just desserts.
We think “well, in the end, he has to live with himself.” Or “what goes around comes around” and we truly hope that something bad will come around for the terrible person who made us hurt.
Compassion, however, paints a different picture. Compassion transmutes the badness into something that we may even identify, sometimes, in ourselves. Compassion leads people to forgive murder and condone sin.
Compassion led me, on the corner of 86th Street that day, to lose my righteous pride in the achievement of marriage and children and see them, finally for what they really are – just personal experiences, sometimes happy and sometimes challenging and never perfect. Like all of life.
Why could I feel compassion for my old I thought I would never get over my hurt and anger over being boyfriend now rejected. I thought I would never find happiness; I though my life would always be in ruins due to him. Deep hurt and anger are, perhaps, the first impediments to compassion.
After him though, the hurt and anger continued. More than one of my subsequent boyfriends was not capable of marriage. I finally learned to navigate my relationships in a new way. I began to interview my dates, asking them, sometimes on just the second date, “Is marriage something you look forward to, or dread?”
The first time I met my husband, I actually asked him “Do you think you would marry someone like me?” I was surprised he didn’t say “I hardly know you!” Instead, he answered “in a heartbeat!” We were married six months later.
And that story leads me to another major impediment to compassion: being unable to move from despair to hope. When you feel so helpless that can’t see your way to navigating change, and you blame the world, compassion is hard to conjure. It may take desperation to decide to navigate the world in search of hope, but compassion follows.
In the end, it was a relief to feel compassion. Compassion is restful and peaceful, unlike hurt, anger or the desire for vindication which make you tense. Compassion can create the sensation of security.
Too bad compassion is so difficult to call forth. We can command ourselves to feel it, certainly, but usually, it has to come from a place in our hearts and not our minds. Being in a position to let go of hurt and anger, and having enough experience under our belts that it is possible to convert from despair to love and success, is key to conjuring compassion, but it also happens sometimes over time.
To work on compassion, just like working on health or happiness, may be a whole-body, whole-life experience. Perhaps, the next time I run into that old boyfriend, I won’t flash my rings. Perhaps, I will feel resolved enough in my feelings, and secure enough about my own life, to simply rest my gaze on his weary face. To ask him gently, “How are you?” and really mean it.