Other voices: Redefining compassion in the community
Jeff Ackerman suggested in his column a few weeks ago that Nevada County residents have “lost a little compassion and the ability to be empathetic.” His remarks referred to the removal of a memorial for Ryan and Brent Newman placed on the hillside adjacent to the accident that tragically took their lives. The removal of the memorial has led to angry words from some and the hurt feelings of others. This is, indeed, unfortunate.
If Nevada County has truly lost compassion – “a feeling of sorrow for another’s suffering that makes one want to help others or show mercy” – then it is regrettable. I have lived in this county for 25 years and have been struck again and again by the compassion of our residents. I am aware of many in our community who have been benefactors of this compassion. Unfortunately, too many have not. I do not believe this has been intentional. In fact I believe just the opposite, but unintentional or not, the effects are just the same. An example of this might be the tragic accident of last May that took three lives, not just two. I felt heartsick when passing the memorial to see only two crosses, rather than three. Were not the losses devastating for both families? One could ask, and justifiably so, “Where was the compassion for Mr. Smith for the loss of his beloved wife?”
Although exclusion of the 3rd cross and the removal of the memorial might be seen as acts lacking compassion, I suggest something else. Might it be a lack of understanding of the others person’s view- a lack of perspective? It’s not easy to see the other person’s struggle when we are so involved in our own.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Could it be nobody? Would a better question be: “Will you share with me how you see the world, and then let me share with you?” The goal of this exchange being a mutual understanding and respect. This is where empathy enters- “the ability to identify oneself mentally with a person and so his or her feelings.” I would call this process education, the act of learning how things are for someone else. Ask questions, read factual information, make it a priority to understand how others’ perspectives differ from yours.
There are other ways to find empathy with others as well. One of the best ways is to know other people. So much of the compassion and empathy shown in Nevada County is within a church, work, family network or a network of old friends. However, there are a growing numbers of folks in our county that don’t have such networks. They are not connected to the whole and are subsequently left out. Assuming that others besides myself are saddened by this, what might we do besides educating ourselves about others’ plight so as to change this exclusion to inclusion? In the words of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, “get in another person’s shoes and walk around in them.” An excellent way to do this would be to look for our similarities to others rather than our differences. Geneticists now agree that we as human organisms are infinitely more similar than different.
I learned a concept many years ago while in graduate school that has a powerful ability to increase ones’ empathy for others. The idea is that each person is likened to a circle of 360 degrees. Each degree is considered to represent something about that person. For example, this person is a female, she is 40 years old, she has 3 children, she has an ailing parent, she works as a secretary, etc. On and on the process goes until theoretically all the degrees in the circle have been named. By the time the process is complete, one begins to feel a connection with this woman. With the connection comes empathy; with the empathy, comes compassion. This woman is no longer excluded. How can she be excluded when she is just like me, like you, like us.
My final suggestion for seeing that our community is inclusive in sharing its compassion and empathy is for each person to find people that they don’t know and share their kindness with them, or “Pay It Forward.” Let Nevada County be known as the “Little County in Northern California who not only could, but did “Pay It Forward.”
Tiffany Glasser is a 25 year Nevada County resident and a retired junior high teacher.
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