Two things recently have touched me profoundly and have taught me much about compassion.

The first lesson was from my dog. Rudy is a nine year old boxer, pit bull mix, and about a year ago he was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery to remove a tumor, he underwent chemo, and we placed him on a special, home-cooked diet. He was doing quite well. But he wasn’t really expected to survive this long, and he recently began to show signs that the cancer was worsening, and it has become quite evident that he may not be with us much longer. He is such a sweet boy, and my heart aches to think of the pain and discomfort that he is going through as he goes through more treatments. I make certain to tell him goodbye every morning as I leave for work not knowing how many mornings he has left. And so, Rudy has me thinking.

It’s very easy to feel compassion for those that are closest to us – spouses, parents, siblings, children, best friends, and pets. When they suffer, we suffer. We wish that we could take on their pain and ease their suffering. It’s difficult for us when we are unable to do that – when we can only watch as they ache and suffer. We would literally leap in front of flying bullets for those closest to us. Because we love and care for them, it is easy to arouse feelings of great compassion.

We even find it pretty easy to feel compassion for those people we simple know – the people at work, at church, or down the street. When we hear of a misfortune befalling one of our acquaintances, we feel their pain slightly, offer our sympathy and understanding, and see if we can be aid in some small way. But, what about those that are not so close to us? What of the strangers that we pass in the routine of each day – the bus driver, the grocery clerk, or the bank teller? These are people who have nominal roles in our lives and who have little or no connection to our lives. Many of us may simply feel indifference toward these people. It may be very difficult to feel deep compassion for those we have very little connection to. And what about those we consider enemies or just bad people? How can we feel compassion toward people we barely know or those that we can seriously hate?

And so the second of my compassion lessons came as I watched an update one morning on the story of Jaycee Dugard. Jaycee was eleven when she was kidnapped, and for eighteen years, she was held captive by a husband and wife. She suffered unimaginable torment and abuse, and miraculously, she was found alive and reunited with her family. Of course my heart went out to her and her family as I thought of the horrors they had suffered. Then images of her kidnappers were flashed on the TV screen. My first reaction was one of revulsion and disgust as I wished death and torture on these evil people. But I caught myself in the midst of this reaction as I remembered much of the reading that I have done recently on Christian and Buddhist spirituality. The main lesson of all this reading has been about loving kindness and compassion. So, I stopped myself in the middle of revulsion for these two people and what they had done, and I let the energy of my feelings linger for a moment as I began trying to understand.

I wondered what could twist a human being so much to do such unspeakable things. I thought about what this man and woman had gone through as children, teens, and adults to cause so much fear, pain, aggression, and suffering to manifest in such a despicable act. Then I wondered if I could have turned out the same way if I had those same experiences. What if I had lived their lives? Would I have been just as vile and corrupted? In a matter of minute or two, these completely evil, wretched individuals were transformed in my mind to very human people who had childhoods, who had hopes and dreams, who had loved, and who had been hurt. But some how they had been bent and twisted by unimaginable things into the “monsters” that would hurt an innocent child. I didn’t feel pity. I felt compassion to these two people who at one time, long ago held such promise. I was able to connect to their humanity and to connect with my compassion.

So, it’s easy to feel compassion for those we love, but it takes great courage to feel compassion for those we do not know or understand. I encourage people to look closely at how they dole out kindness and compassion, to examine how they react to strangers and enemies, and to see if they can attempt to understand and feel genuine compassion for all living beings.