Becoming More Compassionate, One Fact At a Time

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." I'd read and admired this quote for years, but I don't think I'd ever truly understood it until I learned about Laura Bush.

I should explain that I, like many liberals, spent most of the Bush administration digging my fingernails into my palms. My grievances feel considerably less urgent now (though political hate is, alas, an endlessly renewable resource) but such was my fervor at the time that even the First Lady was included in my contempt. In my mind she was the administration's icy enabler, the unfeeling accomplice.

Then I happened to read something in a newspaper profile: when Laura Bush was 18, she ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas and got into a crash, killing a friend and classmate named Mike Douglas. Laura lost her faith in God, the article said, and she was racked with guilt for years afterward.

Learning this did something strange to me - the best way I can describe it is to say that a stick had been placed in the spokes of my inner hate-machine. I could - and did - still object to nearly everything that her husband's administration did, but I could no longer bring myself to loathe her. Learning that one tragic fact had made tangible to me what ought to have been obvious all along: that she was, whatever her politics, whatever her position in life, a sentient, suffering human, just like me.

This was when I started seeking out these sorts of facts. I learned about Ashton Kutcher's twin brother with cerebral palsy; I learned about OJ Simpson's father, who died of AIDS. "There's a good sympathetic fact," I'd mutter to my wife, and soon I found myself happily overwhelmed. People I'd villainized; people whose inner lives I'd never given a thought; politicians; athletes; historical figures -- they all, it turned out, had at least one thing in their lives that made me see them as if for the first time.

And what I've discovered, now that I've been doing this casually for years, is that this exercise has, of its own accord, expanded beyond the realm of public figures. The man staring at his phone outside the locker room; the woman pressing the door-close button in the elevator; the construction worker leaning on his jackhammer - I may not know their sympathetic facts, but I know that they exist, and that knowledge is, in itself, enough to make me regard these strangers more kindly than I otherwise would.

So, in the hope that you might like to experience something similar in your own life, I'm launching a new endeavor. A couple of times each week I'm going to post one sympathetic fact about one public figure. (You can find these facts on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.) And I'd love it if this weren't just a one-way communication. Each of us has a personal litany of people we have a particularly hard time feeling kindness toward - that actor who makes you change the channel, that politician you curse - and if you email me with suggestions, I'll gladly see if I can dig up something redeeming.

My goal isn't to earn these people a public reprieve, or a place in your heart; I've included in my trawl people far beyond the redemptive reach of a single story.

My hope is just that whatever the quieting/complicating thing that happens in me when I learn one of these facts, some version of it will happen in you too. Fact by fact, drop by drop, the public water supply of our minds might get the tiniest bit more clear.