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Compassion Gone Right, A Lesson

My husband, John, became friends with a couple of young people who would sometimes land in jail – usually for beating each other up. That’s how, some years ago, we first learned more about jails and visitations and people in jail as well as their visitors.

I went with John to give him some company when he visited. I had stopped going up to the actual booth-like space where visitors and inmates talked to each other through a phone. The space was teeny, hot, with only one chair, and was difficult for two people to hear and speak though the phone.

Instead, I used the time while John was visiting to read in the larger waiting room outside the jail cells. On this evening, I was deep into an intriguing book when a man came in. No one else was around.

Where the jail is located might be considered a bit creepy especially at night. Homeless people – even those appearing to be on drugs, often, somewhat ironically, sleep in the vestibule.

When the man came in, however, I was not afraid (though I am often fearful and cautious in scary surroundings). I looked up from my book and smiled.

There was something about the man. I will call him a young man, but I don’t think he really was. In fact, he was probably in his late forties. To some part of me, however, he looked quite tender of age as well as anxious with an air of naivete and innocence, sweet.

I went back to my reading.

After a couple of minutes, the man started talking…rambling a bit. He was concerned that there was a warrant out for his arrest. He was to report to a parole officer, but there was some miscommunication and he had not.

“I’m afraid they will put me in jail. Jail is terrifying to me.” He was kind of fidgeting and talking to the whole room though no one else was there.

Then, the man looked over at me, “I’m sorry. You are trying to read your book.”

The man’s wounds, his fears, were obvious. My heart went out to him.

“I care more about you than this book,” someone inside my body said.

I word it like that because I really couldn’t fathom myself saying something so…intimate to a stranger. It was true that I had quickly come to care about this man, but normally I was rather reserved…especially with someone I had just met.

The man stopped fidgeting. He paused and turned to me with his whole body. “What did you say?” he asked.

I repeated what I heard myself say, “I care more about you than this book.”

The man just stared at me for a minute. “You are a beautiful person,” he said.

I thought to myself, “I’m not a beautiful person. If anyone is beautiful. It’s this man who is seeing beauty in me.”

There we were looking at each other, seeing the beauty in each other. Tears in our eyes.

The guards (I guess they would be called that) came out from the jail at that point. They recognized him, grabbed him, and pulled him toward the jail.

He jerked one hand in the air and yelled, “What’s your name?”

“June. My name is June. What’s your name?”

“Steve. I’m Steve.”

“Steve, you’re gonna be all right,” I said as I waved and blew him a kiss while he was pulled through the jail doors.

Of course, I didn’t know if he would be okay. I just earnestly hoped with all my might that he would.


I have reflected on this encounter several times. Through it I can see compassion naturally flowing from me to Steve and then receiving compassion from Steve back to me.

That whole thing he said about me being a beautiful person was not something I believed before I met Steve that night. I had been told differently.

“You’re so ugly,” my father, who was a minister, would say when I misbehaved. Perhaps it was part of Southern culture and parenting.

Since he was a minister, I took those comments to mean that I was not just ugly in appearance, but rather, and more importantly, I was ugly in my inner being, the part that really counted.

Now, I realize that as kids we hear things that can be taken in with much more gravity than they were intended. Nevertheless, it was the case that I did feel ugly inside. And Steve had said from his heart, looking into my heart, that I was beautiful.

The encounter was a double whammy of compassion and love.

In some ways, I just want to leave the story there. But, because I think we can learn from it, I’d like to point out how the compassion practice (learned from Dr. Frank Rogers) shows up for me as I reflect back on the encounter I had with Steve.

I started with a warm, open heart. I was receptive to interacting with another. This is a natural compassion precondition.

I paid attention to the human being coming into the jail anteroom. I noticed his fear and anxiety, as well as his sweetness. I understood what he might be going through. I could see his humanity and connect lovingly to him. Our connection was…ok, I’ll say it. Sacred. I could sense something transcendent in our encounter. I yearned for him to be well, whole, and free.

The compassion practice acronym is PULSE:

  • Paying attention. Noticing the other without negative judgment and chatter, noticing what is going on for the other.

  • Understanding. Catching the fears, longings, aching wounds, stifled gifts – FLAGs, another acronym in the other which often ushers in empathy within us.

  • Loving. When we turn kindness and care, tenderness toward the other, we have a strong sense of connection as two human beings, no longer isolated or alone in our journey.

  • Sensing something more, something bigger. We might call it The Sacred which sometimes seem to hover around and within these genuine, compassionate, human encounters.

  • Noticing, yearning for, new life to be Embodied in the other. We have a deep hope for the other’s well-being. I noticed in this deep encounter that Steve lost his concern for himself. He shifted from his fear to noticing who I was. His tone, his body, his words spoke his appreciation and acknowledgment of the humanity in me. He was embodying new life – one that could look out to others and, in so doing, take the edge off his own anxiety.

That is my take on how the compassion practice unfolds. That is how I understand the work of Dr. Frank Rogers. There are times when this all goes naturally as it did in my encounter with Steve. Other times, I have needed to mentor myself though the steps, noticing where I am getting off track and bringing myself back.

My husband, John, says, “Oh, this all goes naturally when you’re in your love place. Just get in your love place.” That may have truth to it. When we are in that warm and open-hearted place, compassion does seem to flow without effort.

We have a choice when we are not in our love place. We can consider how we can get back there… to our love place (maybe taking the U-turn and giving ourselves compassion), perhaps taking a walk, reading something uplifting, or …we could also practice working with PULSE.

The compassion practice (PULSE) works especially well when we run up against some tough situations. And we do, and we have, and we will.

How might we Journey to the Good Life by purposefully practicing PULSE to become more compassionate?

If you are interested in Christian sermons on compassion, check out the seven compassion practice-based sermons written by Reverend Juli Reinholz in our sermons and stories under resources.

(as always, if you are a subscriber, and hit respond to this blog in your email, the comment will come directly to me)


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