I first learned the value of kindness from my elderly neighbor. I had the most brilliant adventures sewing quilts at her home. She always told me what a good eye I had for colors and how lucky she was to have a helper.
My guardian angel in grade school was a wonderful substitute teacher. My maiden name was a funny one and I used to get teased. Mrs. Buechler taught me to always be kind to others. When I was kind, the name calling stopped and friendships developed.
Mr. Nelson saved the day in high school. He taught me about Thoreau and Emerson and also taught German, which sparked my love of travel. I contacted him to ask him how he feels about compassion. Now a professor, he was happy to answer my questions.
“One of our critical missions in life is to make life better for others around us,” he told me. “Teaching is a ‘human-to-human’ profession. Teachers must provide an emotionally safe classroom that fosters mutual respect and personal dignity. Good teachers provide students with not only academic background, but also a sense of belonging and the freedom to be human.
“Compassion comes, at least in part, from understanding hardship. Hardship is essential to deepen our understanding of what others need to feel valued. Those who do not seem to show compassion may still be learning. They, too, need our human understanding.
“In difficult situations, I always try to remember that everyone is human. Everyone has a life story that drives his or her thinking. This is part of the ‘human-to-human’ understanding. If we understand other people’s reasons for what they do, frustrations diminish. Understanding others helps us achieve better communication and work toward resolution.”
Our public figures in politics can be looked upon for strength, also. Sen. Al Franken gave me his thoughts on public service and compassion.
“Do Just and Good.” That is how he lives his life. “There are many different ways to do well, and public service seems like one of the most direct,” he told me.
I asked him how he stays grounded to remain so dedicated to public service.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” Sen. Franken said. “Franni and I have been together for over 40 years. She’s a partner in everything I do. My kids are great at reminding me what’s important. Basically, it’s important that I’m their dad. I’m certainly not Senator at home and that will always keep you grounded.
“Caring about others is just the values my parents taught us. I think they’re the values all Minnesota parents try to teach their children. To be honest, I’m puzzled by people who don’t seem to be looking out for their neighbors. I think most people really are compassionate, even if you can’t see it right away, but the ones who truly don’t get it just puzzle me. I just try to work around it.
“Staying balanced in the face of negativity and misinformation is a struggle that I don’t always win. It helps very much to remember why I’m doing this. It isn’t about me. Paul Wellstone always said politics was about improving people’s lives, and I believe that’s true. When you’re focused on that goal, it’s much easier to tune out the rest of the noise.”
Many of us have these beliefs about doing good in the world and find exactly the job to fill that need. When a real disaster happens, it is reassuring to know that there are some people willing to risk it all to help us. Bruce and Sue Kerfoot are owners of Gunflint Lodge, a beautiful resort in Northern Minnesota that most Minnesotan’s have either been to or wish they had. Bruce and Sue are also Emergency Response Supervisors for the American Red Cross. Name a major disaster in recent years and they flew in to assist with meals and being on the ground crew. I asked Bruce about compassion, and his responses were brief and to the point. His motto is to “give more than you take.”
“I have had a good life,” Bruce said, “and many people helped me along the way. Now it is my time to contribute and help others. I have been raised in an environment where we have had to solve our daily problems and move on. We live by our own wits.”
I think about and smile at these people who have been an influence on me – from my teachers to a U.S. Senator. Often our lives find us confused or frustrated as to why something happens. But when you answer the “why” with compassion and gratitude, magic happens.