Today many bloggers will be sharing posts about compassion as part of the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion project. My post for this project stems from a lesson I learned about compassion following an event my friends and I now call “The Great Cookie Theft.”
“A lack of compassion is just as vulgar as an excess of tears.” Lady Violet Grantham, Downton Abbey
To help set the stage for my story, allow me to explain the significance of the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake. I have written about it before. In case you are a new reader, this day of fun takes place each year on the last Saturday in November. My parents, five older sisters, family and friends gather at my sister Caroline’s house and spend the day making a variety of cookie recipes. At the end of the day, we box up the treats to take home, filling our freezers with the staples for the many cookie trays we will all give away as gifts during the holidays. My sisters Caroline and Donna started this tradition with my mother in 1990. We have been baking together each year since.
In April 2010 we learned of my sister Mary Jane’s terminal diagnosis of glioblastoma, brain cancer. Following her lead and her wishes, we continued our activities as always. We planned for our annual cookie baking not knowing if it would be the last opportunity for her to join us in person for our gathering. My parents and sisters, nieces and a great niece, friends and cousins all came to Caroline’s house in late November. While we treasure time together each year, this day was special due to the question nobody wanted to acknowledge. Would this be our last year to bake with Mary Jane? We were granted another year, but we didn’t know it then.
I went home from our marathon baking session as I usually do – laden with cookie tins and containers full of delicious morsels. My Personal Assistant, I’ll call her M, packed the cookies away in my freezer then packed a suitcase for my upcoming business trip to western New York. I left the next morning for two days with my colleagues, not imagining anything would happen in my absence.
I returned home to find my front door unlocked. Odd, but not out of the question. The apartment managers had confirmed some repairs might be performed while I was away. But once I turned on the light, I knew something was very wrong. Instead of seeing my television and DVD player in the corner, I saw empty space.
I immediately left the apartment while I called the police. The local officer arrived within five minutes and efficiently cleared the apartment, verifying the thieves were not still inside. I gave a statement after a cursory review of my apartment indicated no other valuables were missing. I provided a list of my Personal Assistant employees to the officer. Noting his interest when I said M’s name, I told him she was finishing my grocery shopping and would be at my apartment in ten minutes. He left to interview my neighbors while waiting for M to arrive.
When M showed up, with bags of food, she gave what I later came to call her “Oscar worthy performance.” The rage and indignation she portrayed even included tears and a runny nose. Who would do such a thing? What level of character steals from a woman with a disability? I’m sure you can imagine the language she used to describe the burglars. She spouted off as she put my groceries away, pausing only when she opened my freezer to shriek, “Denise! They’re gone!”
Sure enough – the freezer was empty. At that moment, as I realized the thieves had stolen my cookies, the crime became personal and I burst into tears. I could live, I had lived, without a television. But discovering they had taken my cookies, the cookies I made with my family, perhaps the last cookies I would ever bake with my sister Mary Jane, was more than I could handle. I sat sobbing, crying with M, knowing I wanted those responsible to pay the maximum penalty.
The police conducted their investigation, and before long it was clear M was involved in the crime. Although she never admitted to any part in it, and the culprits never identified her, the police were certain the burglars gained entry to my apartment with her assistance, especially when they learned she was friends with PP, the man who would eventually be charged in the burglary. Proof came when a subject told the officer he knew of a “job” PP had coordinated in my apartment community. According to the subject, “You wouldn’t believe the cookies we got from this one job. I’ve never seen such variety in one place!” I
think hope it is the only time the DiNoto cookies were ever mentioned in a police report.
Two days later, I learned PP had also stolen a debit card from my apartment and tried to use it at a local Wal-Mart. This elevated the crime to a felony, rather than a misdemeanor. I was glad to hear this news because PP had disrupted my life and I wanted him to PAY! I was angry and wanted revenge more than I had ever wanted it before.
The following week, my co-workers surprised me with a generous gift. I wheeled into my cubicle and found the floor covered by grocery bags full of baking supplies. Flour, sugar, brown sugar, chocolate chips, vanilla, baking soda, baking powder – even eggs! They had also provided me with a gift card to help me replace some of the stolen tins and containers. Overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, I began to cry. I was gloating over the perpetrator of a crime being sent to jail and facing harsher punishment, advocating for maximum sentencing, unable to show compassion or forgiveness because of the rawness of my hurt. My friends were showing such compassion and generosity to me and I felt unworthy of these gifts when I was unable to feel any compassion towards those who had wronged me.
It took me almost a year to move out of anger towards compassion because of one reason. I could not find any empathy for PP or M. I was too mired in hurt, too caught up in the daily challenges caused by this crime to my personal routine to consider the mental health illness and addiction which drove PP and M to plan and commit burglary. PP sold my $600 television for $80 so he could buy drugs. M, who had been my employee for over a year, was also addicted. She did such a good job hiding it, I never knew of her drug use until after the burglary. A single mother of two, she lived hand to mouth through multiple part time jobs, scoring when she could through various means. When I fired her, she was unable to support her children and placed her three year old son in temporary custody with his grandmother. Yes, both PP and M made bad choices and were responsible for their actions. But I was not the only one negatively impacted by their choices.
I like to think of myself as an empathetic and compassionate person, but the truth is I find it almost impossible to connect or show empathy towards others when I dwell on my own hurt or day-to-day struggles. I tend to become so focused on my own pain, or what I need to do in the moment to solve a problem, that considering the perspective of another takes conscious and deliberate effort on my part. I suspect I am not the only one who faces this struggle.
Here’s the rub though – when I force myself to consider another person’s perspective, to embrace empathy, to cultivate compassion, I always feel better than when I stay in my own anger, stress or resentment. Instead of feeling bitter, I feel purposeful. Instead of feeling isolated in my perceived suffering, I feel connected to those around me. Brené Brown, in a popular TED Talk, describes empathy as “feeling with people.” I agree with her statement, “empathy fuels connection.” Connection is what enables us to feel more compassion towards others.
I was only able to begin to move out of anger when I was able to find empathy for PP and M. Since the cookie theft, my personal involvement with loved ones who live with addictions and mental illnesses of their own has given me a clearer picture of the desperation which leads people to make the choices they make. I still don’t condone or approve always, but I am more understanding than I was. Finding empathy does not mean I have truly forgiven PP and M for their actions if I am honest with myself, but having empathy for their struggles has helped me show compassion towards others who face similar struggles.
Cultivating compassion is a choice, one that makes it difficult for me to maintain anger and resentment for extended periods of time. When I am cultivating compassion, I am not only making myself happier but I am hopefully connecting with others on a meaningful level. These authentic relationships are much more rewarding than the isolation and hurt created when I stew in feelings of anger and resentment. While it is not always my first response to chose compassion, as someone who is striving to be more charitable towards others this year, it is my goal to make it my choice more regularly than I may have in the past.
Today, when more than 1200 bloggers are writing about compassion, I challenge you to examine how you make compassion a part of your life. Is anything preventing you from cultivating compassion? What could you do to help find compassion in your own difficult moments?