Choosing Compassion

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.

Cookie Bake Cookies
Each year my family makes dozens of cookies to give away. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

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.

Mary Jane and Denise
Mary Jane and I at Cookie Bake 2010, sporting aprons made for us by our sister Donna. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

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.

Cookies in Freezer
My freezer, full of cookies made during Cookie Bake 2010.

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?

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28 thoughts on “Choosing Compassion

  1. Very Good Dee
    . As a business owner of a service company, I too have to remember this, When people explain what is going on in their lives-ie, sickness, loss of job, moving etc as to why they can’t pay a bill this month-we then can work together towards a plan of how we can help them. If I can make it a little easier, and still continue to provide a service, then they might remember that someone was kind to them and pass it along to another, when they are able to. Do we get burned occasionally with this action? Yes of course, and it probably isn’t in the :business owner’s manual”, but it has kept us being a part of the community we serve for 20 years now.
    Honestly, the anger and betrayal felt is still hard for me to overcome as well in certain situations, That is a good time to then remind ourselves how we want to “use our energy” for the day as Jen used to say.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Crinnie. And I appreciate the reminder to choose my energy expenditure. I spent far too much of mine yesterday in anxiety when I should have been trusting in faith. Your business model may not be in the textbook, but it’s why you’ve built a successful business which serves your community. Love you!

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  2. I appreciate this post so much. The truth is, it made me angry–and then it made me cry. I’m sorry that you had to experience this, and for the added burn that your precious sister died. I’m learning things from you. Important things. Thank you.

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    • Crystal, I appreciate you and have learned so much from you as well. I have shared this story verbally so often, but writing it down took more than I thought it would. I’m glad I did it, and honored it touched you.

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  3. The theft was terrible on so many levels, but the fact that your assistant played a part in it makes it even more dastardly. I think your anger was justified, but I’m glad that eventually you were able to look at the events on a deeper level and not harbor those initial negative emotions. M’s children being placed with their grandmother might have been a blessing in disguise for them.

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    • Yes – I wondered the same thing about M’s children. I was talking about this incident with my sister this morning and the fact this was so much more than a burglary made it more difficult to move out of anger. The two of them were easy targets for all the anger I felt, not just my emotions related to the crime.

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  4. Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your story. Anger is always easy. Having compassion can be difficult at times, especially when there is anger to overcome. And you are right, compassion is a choice. I would’ve been angry too. I think anyone would have the right to be! But making a conscious effort to choose compassion can be helpful in any tough situation like this.

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  5. I’m still mad about the cookies and such a cruel and person theft and yet it’s so often the case that what is taken leave that deep impact and offers us the choice to grow in hate or in compassion. I’m still mad about the cookies, and then I think of your friends and their kind gesture to try shift the balance. I’m still mad about the cookies and then I think of the humanity of broken people and how cookies are a great leveler speaking to the healthy and the unwell. Loved your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and commenting – on everything. You, my friend, are on the 2015 cookie list. Not just for this comment, but for your empathy for the cookies 🙂 As my sister Sandy says on her cookie bake blog, “Talk is cheap; a good cookie is priceless.”

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  6. I’m really sorry that you had to go through such a rough experience and endure it, but in the end you managed to stick to the path that generates good in spite of everything, and this is what truly matters. You didn’t give up on compassion, and thanks to that for example it was through your blog that I learned about this wonderful 1000Speak initiative and joined it. I’m sure that you filled some more hearts with compassion as well and that is a sort of goodness that will come back to you and help you, I do believe in that.
    All the best! Tanja

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    • I’m glad to have been the one to lead you to #1000Speak. The stories I’ve read today of compassion remind me how important it is to have faith and to remain hopeful. Things are never as bad as they may seem.

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  7. Great story and what a challenge to find compassion after you were hurt in such a personal way! Thanks for sharing your struggles. It helps me to see both how I can be more compassionate and why being compassionate is often so difficult.

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  8. I love the honesty of this post. I too struggle with compassion and empathy with the kind of people you have described here because I’ve worked so hard for everything that I’ve ever gotten in this life time. I would be sooo incredibly angry if someone broke into my home and stole my hard earned wares, I would be doubly angry if I knew the person who did it and I don’t know how long it would take me to “let it go..” Kudos to you for finding resolve and my condolences.

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    • It took me time to move forward, and as I said I don’t know that I’ve reached forgiveness. But empathy is useful, even if I haven’t reached understanding. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment. I’m grateful that my words touched you.

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  9. Wow, reading this brought back that terrible night. After such a long day and long drive you got home to such a personal violation. Oh it was heartbreaking and we all felt so helpless especially with so much going on at the time. So much has happened since then though and most of it very good. I wouldn’t worry about forgiveness. I suspect one day you will just find that it is there.

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    • It seems like so long ago, yet just like yesterday. I remember clearly everything about that trip and that week. You, and many others, were wonderfully kind. I never would have found my way through without your support. I have been blessed.

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  10. Wow! That’s certainly quite an event to have gone through. I’m so sorry you had to go through that….trust being broken like that is really one of the hardest things to recover from. I also have situation where I find it hard to eck out compassion for the person…..I’m glad to know you’re finding that action so healing…that’s very helpful to me. I’m also very glad to know you have such a wonderful family that celebrates its closeness with things like cooking baking and laughter. Hang on to that with all you’ve got!

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    • It is hard to rebound after an event like a burglary or any crime. But I am blessed to have a strong support network and they stepped in to help when I was wallowing in sorrow and sadness. I don’t know how people manage without sisters 🙂 As much as I joke about having some to spare, I’d never trade any of them. Thank you for stopping by to read and share your comments!

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