The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members. Coretta Scott King
My husband, John, and I docked our boat in the marina at Kingston. Chilled to the bone, we ventured up town to The Cup and Muffin for a hot espresso. Outside sat an older woman with cheap jewelry covering her chest and waist, a pink tam, kiltish sort of skirt, and knee socks with flowered knee pads - just the sort of woman my husband is instantly attracted to.
“Hello. Little chilly out here,” says John. The woman looks up somewhat in surprise, then jumps right into a discourse on the weather.
“Hey, you sound like you’re from New Joirsey, “ John remarks.
“No, I sound like that because I got hit in the head. Remember there was an earthquake in Bainbridge Island. I fell and hit my head. That is why I talk this way. I come here for coffee in the morning and a bacon sandwich at lunch.”
Our espressos were ready. We quietly asked the barista if we could put some money on a card for the lady. We were told there was no need for that. We were assured that woman was well taken care of by the folks in Kingston.
Toward evening we trekked back up town to dine on Greek food at Kafe Neo’s. Our waitress was willing to let us eat al fresco despite the burrrr. The waitress answered our questions about food, about Kingston, and about the pink-hat lady.
“Oh, that’s probably Sherrie that you’re talking about. Yeah, she’s a nice lady. Used to be a paralegal, but something happened to her. I also work at that restaurant close to the marina, she comes there for dinner. I give her my discount. Sometimes I just buy her dinner. The woman who runs the food bank lets her sleep under the deck if she wants.”
As I looked into the Cleopatra-like painted eyes of the waitress and noticed her no nonsense demeanor, I ask, “What gives you compassion for Sherrie?”
“Oh, well, my family was homeless for a few years, that could be me,” she responded with a little smile and wave of her hand.
John and I have long wondered what nudges (or inhibits) our kindness, compassion, mercy, and altruism. Though those things are different, I would call them spiritual cousins. They are all about seeing others as worthy of our attention, tenderness, and care. These acts of kindness, compassion, mercy, and altruism are usually done from people’s own free will without being asked or expecting anything in return. And we often feel better about ourselves when we do behave in kind, compassionate, altruistic ways. Chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine often squirt around in our bodies. Life seems warmer, brighter, fuller, richer, more meaningful.
It can also feel good if we are the recipients of kind gestures. John and I recounted some of those uplifting moments we experienced when others acted benevolently on our behalf.
Last year John needed a box to ship an item. He decided to go dumpster diving in an area behind retail stores in Cashmere. After a few minutes, a man stopped by, extended his hand, and asked gently if he could use ten dollars. John was taken aback at first. Then he laughed. And then… he felt his heart light up with … stuff…like love and belonging. He felt like he might float off the ground.
When I asked him if he knew why he felt all that good stuff. He scratched his chin and said, “It just feels good to know that there are people out there you don’t even know who have your back.”
Helping others shifts our focus from indulging in our own unhealthy brooding - depressive, and anxious thoughts. As we keep an eye out for others, do a little something as we can here and there, we develop our confidence and increasingly access our internal resources. It is called a virtuous cycle – positive actions, emotions, and events which build on each other and lead on and on to more positivity. Eventually we have the strength to tackle big stuff.
The virtuous cycle is the opposite of the vicious cycle which we can also get caught in. The vicious cycle is one in which we notice and do things which lead to a continuing downward spiral of emotions, thoughts, and events. Life sucks, I’m sick and suffering and nobody cares, I’m not getting out of bed except to shake my fists at the heavens, and spit on my neighbor’s cat.
Ok, let’s be honest. It has been a tough year, let’s be gentle with ourselves. Still we can use this time of year to become more aware of which spiral (vicious or virtuous) our thoughts, emotions, and actions are leading us toward. We can decide to adjust and aim toward the upward spiral.
We can notice who needs our help. We can strike up conversations with those who seem a little different. We can remember those who have looked out for us.
And most of all, we can remember the sentiment expressed by one of my compassionate friends as she digs into her meagre money hoping to find a few bucks to buy a gallon of milk for someone in need, “except for the grace of God, there go I.”
How might we Journey to The Good Life by keeping an eye out for others and initiating a virtuous cycle – an upward spiral?