How I Learned Compassion

I was asked a question on twitter last week: How did you learn compassion?
This is my full answer. 

When I was a little girl, I loved to play frisbee with my grandpa.

He and grandma had three acres of land on the outskirts of Ellisville, Mississippi where my grandpa taught calculus, trigonometry, and electronics at the local junior college. He was the kind of professor who had the students over for a cook-out at the end of each semester.

Most weekends during my early childhood you could find me at their house, looking through Grandpa's voluminous collection of Readers Digest, watching Shirley Temple movies, raking leaves with garden gloves that swallowed my elbows, and playing frisbee with my mom, sister, and grandpa.

I wish I could paint a picture of my grandpa for you. Though it is not particularly pertinent to the story, he is a part of me. His laugh and his smile are the first things I think of. Followed by the distinct, South Dakota/second generation German accent, that most noticeably rings out when he is arguing with a political pundent on TV. He served two terms in Vietnam and retired from the Air Force, never completing the doctorate he worked so hard to almost, never finish. He is smart. Very smart. And yet he never felt rough or stoic or distant, like some men in the military do. He is soft around the edges. But opinionated. Loud when he's passionate. Funny when something tickles him. And most importantly, he's the kind of guy that can be every man's friend.

Did I mention he played for the Red Sox's farm league (later known as minor leagues) before he was drafted?

His tightly curled hair has been on his head for as long as I can remember. I didn't know that picks, the kind you use in your hair, were owned by any one other than Grandpa's. With his curly head of hair, knee-high socks, and shorts left over from the heyday of the 70's- he taught me how to play frisbee.

At night, I loved to sit at the table and hear him talk back to the news anchors. Somebody in Washington was always screwing up something. Then- someone on Wheel of Fortune was always stupid. "My God Jennifer. What are they teaching you kids? Can you believe this man- how does he not know the answer to the seven letter word?" He would laugh and sigh, almost simultaneously. When I was older and living three states away, I often had to call him for help with my math, and I could feel the same sigh. "What do you mean they haven't taught you how to divide fractions? How the hell are you supposed to graduate high school if you can't divide fractions? This education system has to be fixed Jennifer. Unbelievable. Really. Ok- well, tell me what you do know."

It was never much. What I did know. Still, he sat on the phone and taught me until he literally could not handle my stupidity anymore. He never called me stupid and I never felt that way. But I could hear his disappointment in public education every time another idiot drove the wrong way, passed the wrong bill in congress, or failed at dividing fractions.

I got the feeling that if he were in charge of things- well- we'd all be less stupid as a result from it.


With that in mind, 25 years later, I am even more struck by the beauty of what he did with his free time- for as long as I can remember.

Grandpa would go down to the Howard Industries plant in Laurel, Mississippi every week and teach grown men to read and write. To do basic math. To balance their check books. He never missed. And he always picked up extra volunteer shifts if a colleague couldn't make it. It was important to him- and he honored the men with his time for years and years and years.

To the uneducated factory worker- he became friend. Teacher. Mentor. And most importantly, advocate. He taught them as grown men should be taught. With dignity. Privacy. And respect.

I would venture to say that not a single man who spent time as a student under my grandpa ever felt less than. I would say they felt empowered. Stronger. Smarter. More capable. And accepted.

This man who yelled at the idiots on T.V. and constantly worried about the state of public education, did more than rant against the problems he saw in the world. He was- instead- a man of compassion. 

He saw a problem. Over 1,000 grown men and fathers down the street couldn't read. The problem stirred something deep within him. And he acted upon it- hoping to play a small role in bringing about change.

And this is my first memory of seeing compassion.


Merriam-Webster says compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Wikipedia defines it as a virtue — one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself.

The Christian Bible records Jesus telling several stories in which a person showing compassion to another, is a reflection of God's own character. An act of love that trumps social mores or even what one deserves- compassion- is said by Christ himself to be the way to inherit eternal life. (Luke 10:25-37; Luke 15: 20-32; 1 Corinthians 13:13)



I know it deep within me better than I know myself; I understand it more clearly than I understand my closest friends, my husband, my own daughter. When I have failed at everything else, stained my conscience, lost my way, or absorbed myself in utter selfishness- compassion still seems to be there, at work inside of me. Despite me. A rusty compass, sometimes covered up under heaps of dirt, but still working, still pointing to true north; compassion has been my ever constant companion. With me since I was a little girl.


It did not come through osmosis. I was not born compassionate. I did not take a class that taught me to deeply empathize and act on behalf of someone else who was suffering.


I learned compassion, by watching compassion. 

Through my grandpa. My mom. My dad. My papaw. People in the church and people outside of the church. I could write a book on the acts of compassion I have seen during my life time. And the book would be at least 1,000 pages long.


I see it everyday with Annie. She says something that completely surprises me. Like, "Mom, when I grow up. Someday I'm gonna drive a car. And I'm gonna drive fast." Or, "Mom, I'm a nice doctor, you don't have to worry, but you do have to obey." Or, "Mom, was I a good friend to him, because I tried to be a good friend?"

I find myself asking Annie nearly everyday, "WHO TAUGHT YOU THAT?!?"

She absorbs everything. And I am a firm believer that what you absorb, you become- or at least become to a degree. Somebody is teaching Annie the way that somebody taught me. We are all being taught. And we are all teachers.

And I believe that somewhere in the process of seeing compassion lived out- we learn it. And it lingers within us.

So be it compassion, grace, forgiveness, anger, hate, idolatry, laziness, etc. we are all learning from one another. We either teach one another love and beauty or we teach one another hate and selfishness.

I am grateful to have watched- and learned- compassion from so many, many people.


As I began thinking about this entry, I tried to remember the first time I saw compassion in my life. My grandpa came to my mind first. And my second memory of seeing compassion was with him too.

As my sister and I would play frisbee with grandpa, I would inevitably step in a huge antbed and be covered within seconds. And he would inevitably scream at my grandma, "Dammit Ellie the ants got Jennifer again, I need the gas can!" and at that my grandma magically appeared with an old rusty can of gasoline and a new sweat band for grandpa. We stopped the game and he would go on a hunt for new antbeds that needed to be destroyed. I sat on the swing with mom and rested. Grandma fixed us drinks. But my sister Melissa- with every ounce of angst in her body, threw herself at the antbeds to protect them from the gasoline.

When that didn't work- she stuck sticks in and let the ants crawl all the way up the sticks to her fingers and moved them to a new home. No ants were going to be poisoned to death on her watch. And I watched her thinking- she is so weird. 

Now, when I think about "compassion" I smile as I remember that "weird" sister.

I didn't know it then, but she was teaching me what compassion looks like.

Even if it was with ants.