I wrote in my “ate” adjectives post that the word “compassionate” is one adjective that we hope will be used to describe our son as he goes through life. But what about you? Would your friends and family describe you as compassionate?

In that adjectives post, I touched on this word briefly, and gave some ideas as to how you can show compassion, but I want to focus in this post on some reasons why you might want to show compassion.

When I lived in Chicago after college, I remember a comment my mom made when my parents were up for a visit. We were riding the train into town, and mom said something along the lines of how unhappy everyone looked. Granted, for those of us who’ve spent any time on mass transit, people generally keep to themselves (nowadays staring at a phone), and faces are quite expressionless, to be sure. If you’re too friendly, you might be thought of as the strange person!

People might be thinking about what needs to get done at work or at home. Perhaps money is tight, and they’re worrying about a bill that needs to be paid. Or maybe something much heavier is on their mind.

You never know

There is a family a few doors down from us that pretty much keeps to themselves. We don’t know them all that well, but we are friendly neighbors.

We learned recently from some other neighbors that this family will be moving to the beach later this month because the mother has a terminal illness and wants to spend her remaining time there with her family. While we generally knew about some past medical issues, nobody had any idea that it had gotten this bad.

You never know what people are dealing with in their private lives. They may put on a happy face, or they may not even try to hide it. Living in a large city like Atlanta, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with less than pleasant people. Over time, I’ve tried to not take their attitude toward me as something personal. The person that cuts you off might be a single parent running late to their second job. Maybe the person in the restaurant that seems short with you has a sick child at home, and their focus is elsewhere.

Everyone has a story

We’ve all faced struggles. They may have happened as children, or as adults. They may be past struggles, or they may be current challenges. We carry them with us, and they have played a part in who we are.

When I was at EY (Ernst & Young), I was part of a group that conducted development sessions for different client-facing teams within the company. The foundation for these sessions was to help the team members establish trust with each other. With trust as the cornerstone, we’d always begin with an exercise where we asked people to share something with the group that others might not now about them. Responses to this were generally something fun, like an ex-Marine who loves to bake cupcakes, or someone that played an instrument in their spare time.

The next item we’d ask people to share was about a challenge they’d faced while growing up. While some people didn’t feel comfortable truly opening up, most people did. And the stories we heard were both traumatic and inspiring. People shared stories of abuse, alcoholic parents, poverty, eating disorders, struggles with sexuality, bullying, and thoughts of suicide.

Rarely did we complete this part of the session without tears and a few hugs, but it was so powerful, impactful, and eye-opening. What resulted for most participants was real compassion and empathy after hearing the experiences of their co-workers. We all have a story. Most of us may never have to share it publicly, or those around you may not feel comfortable sharing it until they trust you more, but they have a story.

Smile – it confuses people!

I saw this sign in a restaurant once, and I got a great kick out of it because it’s true. Being compassionate doesn’t have to be anything grandiose, but it could be confusing when people don’t expect it! It could be as simple as a smile and a “hello,” especially to a stranger.

Our son’s school has an auction each year, and class art is always one of the highlights. Not only does each individual classroom do their own piece of art, but each grade comes together to work on a grade-wide project as well. Two years ago, the school decided that each grade would paint a “buddy bench.” The painting on each bench was fantastic, and the benches have been placed in various spots across the campus.

The idea is that whenever you are feeling down, or need a friend to talk to, you go sit on one of the benches so that others know you could use a “buddy.” You may not have a buddy benches in your town, or your office, but try to imagine a person that seems down sitting there alone on that bench. In your own compassionate way, take a seat next to them so they know they’re not alone in their struggle.