Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Coffee House Revelation

coffee house where the "locals" gather

It's hot in the desert this time of year. Most of the tourists and the "snowbirds" have gone home, leaving only us hardy locals to bear the burden of the triple digit temperatures, and I love it. The pace is gentler,  the atmosphere less hectic. For me, summer in the desert is a great time of the year. 

Almost every day I find myself sitting with the locals in a favorite little Coffee House in town.  I go there for way more than a mid-morning caffeine fix. I go to that Coffee House so I that I can quietly sit among the people, and bask in the ebb and flow of everyday life.

Yesterday,  I experienced a Coffee House revelation. 

The poet/author, Christian Wiman once made a poignant distinction between "compassion" and "pity":

Compassion is someone else's suffering flaring in your own nerves.
Pity is a projection of, a lament for the self.

When I first read this, I actually thought I understood this distinction. Yesterday, during my mid-morning coffee break, I really got the message.

As I sipped my green iced-tea at the Old Town Coffee Company, a very elderly man hobbled over to a nearby table and plopped into a chair. Our eyes briefly met as he quickly looked away and slumped over, stirring the liquid in his paper cup. He looked so alone, so forlorn. 

Then I heard him sob - just a few little sounds, but so filled with such a deep sorrow. I looked a bit closer and I saw he was weeping, a stream of tears running down his cheeks - and something stirred in my own spirit.

I also found myself quietly sobbing, tears on my face.

I wasn't trying to figure out what was bothering the man. I wasn't developing scenarios about what could have brought him to tears - maybe he is remembering his dead wife, lamenting over growing old and living alone? 

I simply wept along with him. 

And at that moment I had a revelation: This is what it means to be compassionate - the suffering of that elderly man was "flaring in my own nerves." 

I've been thinking about my revelation yesterday. I feel sorry for people all the time (I have pity on them).  I have pity on victims of bombings and school shootings. I have pity on those poor people in Colorado who have lost their homes in the wildfires. But pity really is a product of the ego. 

When I pity someone I am often saying, "I'm sorry this happened to you (but I'm glad it didn't happen to me)."  When I pity someone I am always in the superior position. I feel sorry for someone who isn't as lucky as me: "I haven't lost a child in a shooting, suffered in a bombing, or lost my house in a fire - I'm sorry you did." 

Compassion is something very different. Compassion involves suffering along with the other. Compassion involves becoming the other so that their pain is your pain "flaring in your own nerves." 

Yesterday as I sat and sobbed in a local Coffee House. I was compassionate. 

It was a grand revelation. 

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