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Commentary: Compassion for Ourselves and Others


Every month I look forward to the new issue of "The Sun" magazine[1].  I always start on the very last page, diving into a section called the Sunbeams.  Filled with quotes from notable individuals, I like this segment because I often find that the theme resonates with me.  This month was no exception.  In the very first entry the author Cheryl Strayed writes:

“I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from a deep engagement with our internal lives – those fountains of inconvenient feeling…We’re hurtling through time and space and information faster and faster, seeking that network connection.  But at the same time, we’re falling away from our families and neighbors and ourselves.”

As we approach the holidays and the feelings of isolation that often accompany them, I think it is important to explore one of the many themes of the season and of the quote above - compassion.  Compassion for ourselves and others. 

I live in a small town called Macomb.  For the last 19 ½ years I’ve made my home here.  But I haven’t always lived here.  I grew up on a small farm in southern Ohio where our closest neighbor was a mile up the road.  I have also lived in Heidelberg, Germany with a population of 150,000+ and the sprawling town of Gainesville, Florida.  But in each place that I have called home, I’ve always known my neighbors.  I’ve spent time with them, whether that meant painting murals in the elementary school in El Pinar in the Dominican Republic or chatting with my Oma over Kaffee und Kuchen in Nienhagen.  I’ve tried to participate in daily life in a way that immersed me in each and every community. 

In German there is a slight, but significant difference in the language one uses that indicates how close one feels to the community they call home.  Ich lebe means “I live,” whereas Ich wohne means “I reside.”   You can reside anywhere, but really living in a place means being engaged in your community. 

Regardless of whether you are one of the over 4 billion people on the planet who lives in an urban area[2] or your zip code places you in small village along the banks of the Mississippi, we come into contact with people every day.  Each encounter is an opportunity to practice compassion and kindness towards others and ourselves by reaching out to those around us. 

A recent study in “Science Daily” noted that loneliness is bad for our hearts and linked to premature death[3].  Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, writes that “…it's not enough to just be physically near other people to break down loneliness: we also have to reach out to make contact with them.”[4]

This season offers a multitude of opportunities for us to make a difference in the lives of others and our own.  And while donating money to organizations that make the world a better place is always a good option you don’t have to spend money to spread compassion. 

Just in and around my small town you can volunteer to read out loud at the Audio Information Services whose broadcasts provide access to print-impaired individuals in all or part of 20 counties in west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri[5]

Not your cup of tea?  How about volunteering to staff the Loaves & Fishes Pantry[6] housed at the First Presbyterian Church?  Loaves & Fishes is one of five food pantries in Macomb that strives to meet the needs of the food insecure in our county. 

If that doesn’t strike your fancy, why not donate blood at either the Red Cross or Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center.  It won’t cost you a dime and you may just save the life of someone in need. 

Still too much human contact?  Why not volunteer to walk the dogs at McDonough County Animal Shelter?[7]  Puppies of all ages make humans smile, especially those who are looking for compassion and kindness. 

The point is, there are many ways in which we can be part of a community and show empathy to ourselves and those around us. 

As the Dalai Lama wrote in The Art of Happiness “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.