Before Christmas there was a cold snap and I was driving to rural Gloucestershire for my work Christmas lunch. I was looking forward to it because as a home based worker I see too little of the colleagues who support me through the year. I’d even challenged my own seasonal aversion by volunteering to write the christmas quiz. When a red light started flashing on my dashboard while negotiating the M32 a number of thoughts rushed through my head all preceded by the word “Shit”. “Shit! I don’t know what that light means and I probably should”. “S@*#! I’m going to miss the Christmas lunch.” “S@*#! I’m stuffed if I’m going to stop on the motorway while this car is still driving”.
Following the latter expletive filled thought I chugged along until I left the motorway and ambled along to an undignified halt in a car park somewhere off the A38. The two and a half hours I spent waiting for the RAC were variously occupied with keeping myself warm, attempting to do some work on my laptop and talking to the voice of doom and gloom embodied in the form of Gary, my mechanic. I was extremely relieved when the orange van pulled up following a jolly call from the RAC man. Something about his demeanour told me that things were looking up.
I chatted to him as he poked and prodded and tested and fiddled. If I had a crest it would have fallen to the floor when he offered his diagnosis. No antifreeze, no oil. Both things I could have taken care of. My effusive apologies were matched by the good kicking I gave myself for my shameful omissions.
“Hang on!” he said. “You’ve done nothing wrong. Anyone could have done this. Now let’s see if we can get you to your Christmas lunch!”
As he spoke I felt my frozen nervous system begin to thaw as if his words had dispensed psychic anti-freeze. I started to relax and my temporarily suspended brain started to wonder at the impact of both his words and body language. So many breakdown engineers would have shaken their heads and stoked their square jaws whilst explaining to be “What you really need to do is…” Having had this experience before I was braced for it. If I get in there first with the character assassination they might not need to let me have it.
Reflecting on this later a few big questions came to mind. What does it take to be able to respond like that? Is it kindness? Is it compassion? What is the difference between them? This took me onto thinking about my role as a trainer in Trauma, Attachment and Resilience and the key message I put out every day in my sessions. I tell people that the way people recover from the impact of stress they cannot regulate, is through attuned connection with someone who in that moment can regulate both their own stress and that of another. To do this we need to have the capacity to summon up compassion. Is this something we can learn? Can we develop the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and accept that they are doing the best they can? Is this a trait which is supported culturally? Does this paragraph have too many questions? We’ll see.
I don’t know any more about this man or his motivation than I do about the endless people who have taken a different path in that moment. Had he had a good day? Was he well adjusted? Did he just take pleasure in his work and in making people happy? All I knew was that at that moment he had the capacity to do a small thing which made a big difference for me.
I know I can’t always manage that small thing. Only last night having waited 20 minutes to be served in a restaurant and then having the wrong order brought – I was on the verge of letting the young waitress know all about my stress. It was only when a friend noticed how completely overwhelmed she was that I was able to step out of my own needs in that moment and summon a bit of begrudged patience.
I don’t know if the RAC man was compassionate. Did he for an instant step into what it was like to feel what I felt on the side of that icy road – or did he just have a policy of doing good things? The end result was the same.
I feel a little awkward talking about compassion. I have an idea that some people see it as a sort of charity motivation that people have towards those “less fortunate”. It has a faint odour of religious self righteousness which many understandably avert their noses from. I think it’s more than that and it requires an emotional vulnerability for us to inhabit in the moments we are able. If empathy is opening ourselves up to being in the feelings of another who may be in distress – compassion is the move to act on that empathy to try to make things better. Both empathy and compassion risk some level of stress – in allowing the feelings of another to temporarily usurp our own defences and self protections. Offering help risks rejection. It risks walking into the difficulties the other is experiencing.
Culturally opening ourselves up to the struggles of others risks another injunction – the idea that we are being some kind of mug. Being taken in by the needs of others and somehow being taken advantage of. There is a point here too. No one can meet everyone’s needs. We all have limits – yet I can’t help thinking that more collective good is done by those who worry less about being taken for a ride than giving people a lift if they need it.
I experience another cultural injunction which comes into play here. When I say experience – I mean that it’s often hurled at me so my opinions about it are far from neutral. It’s the one which says that we (especially men) shouldn’t be too sensitive. Mostly I take this to mean that I shouldn't react emotionally to things that “weren’t intended to cause offence”. Whilst I get that no one enjoys grown ups getting histrionic over a bit of banter I’m wondering whether sensitively is a two way stream. What I’m playing with is the idea that – in order to tune into someone enough to say the “right enough” thing with the “right enough” tone to settle someone whose stress kettle is about to whistle – you might need to have a good antenna around other people – aka be a bit sensitive.
The world has a lot of problems – wars, poverty, oppression, climate change – and I’m not saying that a bit of sensitivity, kindness, compassion whatever you call it is going to solve all these. I think I am saying that the world – especially in difficult times – needs people who can just for a moment, put down their personal needs, gripes, prejudices, cultural injunctions and just tune in to another human being and give them what they need.