A few months ago a woman I didn’t care much for taught me a powerful lesson in compassion.
She and I were in an all-day meeting together, both participants in a group of about twenty. I also found us at the same table at lunch, despite my attempt to avoid her. Her pattern of behavior throughout the day was steadfast: She steered most conversation threads back to herself, repeatedly hijacking conversations to talk about herself.
Once she had command of the conversation, she worked hard to keep it, rarely pausing for a breath and droning on about this project she was doing and that. She seemed oblivious to the social cues of those around her, missing the eye rolling, the sighs, the shuffling of papers and moving forward in seats that typically signal people are ready to move on.
I found myself rather fixated on her because she seemed so desperately in need of attention and equally blind to the fact that the attention she’d commandeered was not the type she probably wanted. I had to fight not to shake my head in annoyance each time she spoke. Which was frequently.
Around 3:00 pm and a few minutes before we adjourned, I found myself watching her and asked myself, yet again, “What is going on for this woman? Why is she grasping for attention again and again like that?”
This time, though, my heart was ready with an answer. A gentle voice in my head said, “She isn’t grasping for attention. She’s desperate for acknowledgement.”
As we were all putting on raincoats, I saw her off by herself and approached her. I put my hand on her arm and said, “Thank you for all you’re doing…it’s clear you have put so much energy into your projects for others and so much of your heart into caring about other people.” It wasn’t easy to say this. A part of me was still annoyed about how much time she had taken in our day.
Her response startled me. She put her face in her hands and began to sob. Eventually she said, “Thank you for saying that. It means the world to me that someone noticed.” Then she hugged me fiercely and was gone.
I keep thinking about her, not because of who she was or what she did, but because she humbled me deeply. She allowed me to re-learn something I know about myself and which the universe reminds me now and again: When I allow my compassionate self to lead, instead of my judgmental self, not only is my day brighter, but it is for those around me as well.