The Power of Compassion: A Lesson at the Zoo

I have experienced and witnessed that the only way to transmute violence, anger, and fear is with courageous love and compassion.
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National Zoo, Washington DC
National Zoo, Washington DC

I've been on a journey with compassion, discernment, and judgement as my drivers. As the miles and years have ticked by, I've noted how these three companions have influenced my life, my thinking, and my choices. Judgement has tried its best to be -- and often has been -- in control, but as experience has taught me, judgement and compassion don't lead to the same place. I don't like the place that judgement leaves me -- it feels bad for me and, I suspect, for those that receive it.

So, as I see situations where judgment wants to jump in, I've been increasingly playing with the energy of compassion instead. I say "play" because it truly is a sense of play and wonder that I feel as I observe how compassion -- as opposed to judgment -- can transmute situations to a higher vibration.

This play between judgement and compassion isn't new to the world. Long before compassion was shown to the "woman at the temple," we have been struggling with throwing stones in judgement. I know what happens when stones are thrown; what fascinates me now is what happens when compassion is thrown.

On a trip to the National Zoo with my daughters, we came upon an angry, loud, and physically imposing father (or caretaker). While fixating on this father berating his grade-school son, I noted the surrounding families' reactions to the scene. One thing was clear -- we all recognized that this father's actions were deeply disturbing to witness. He was loud, physical, and out of control. One of his children was cowering, the other was trying to not exist.

My life's compass is attuned to nurturing children through compassion, peace, safety, and love. My life's work is in figuring out how to make this possibility click in others. Judgement, I've found, is not the way.

At the zoo scene, I observed one family who was passing by the abusive father. This stroller-pushing bystander postured as he walked by the scene. Every bit of his walk, his stance, his clenched jaw, and stare reflected back the horror that he perceived. This bystander was ready to intervene, but he didn't. Perhaps he assessed that he'd lose that fight with the imposing man. As the stroller-dad kept walking, I could sense that the reflective anger and stress stayed with him. A few steps later, this bystander snapped at his own child. Anger and rage flows; it has to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, the angry father kept drilling on his son -- unaware of the passing stares and destructive energy that was permeating all. My mind wandered to the lions who were pacing in their moat-surrounded cage just beyond this scene. A part of me wondered if, like this father, those lions felt trapped and enraged. I felt sad for the pacing lions. I felt compassion for the father.

Wow... That's a huge thought as I was seeing a man beat his son.

As my family's footsteps were edging closer to this father, his son, and the daughter who I could now see had a bloody nose, I tunneled in on two thoughts: getting my girls beyond the scene in safety, and doing something to create a pause in this father.

I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew it wasn't going to be done in anger and judgement -- energy that would have been disastrous for that child and possibly me. I stayed connected to compassion.

While my mind relaxed in the not-knowing, I thought about what brought this family to the zoo. I just couldn't imagine that he woke up that morning and thought, "Today I want to take my children to the zoo and become enraged, frightening and harming them." At some point in his planning, I believed he had held a thought that today would be a fun day, just as I had.

Again, I felt compassion for him as I imagined that this wasn't who he had wanted to be. And yes, I was also very aware of the children that were on the receiving end of this anger.

And so I played.

Ushering my children past him, I smiled and said to him, "Not quite the day you had planned, is it?" My words, my smile, and my eyes of compassion broke through his fog of anger. He stopped screaming and pushing. He froze, actually. And as if in slow motion, he looked at me -- a brief pause where he seemed to snap back into awareness. I noted that the boy also was able to sigh out.

We stood there -- me smiling, the father frozen -- a second or two, which seemed like an eternity. I could feel my peace reaching him, surrounding him, transmuting that lower energy into something new. I felt safe because I felt connected to him.

Aware of his shift, I glanced quickly at the girl with the blood-soaked tissue, and in returning my soft gaze to the father, I said, "It looks like she could use another tissue," and with this he started fumbling in his pockets. I very much didn't want to sink back into judgement over him not having a tissue! I gave a sympathetic laugh and said, "Yeah, I never have one with me either."

Luckily, one of my gifts is heightened awareness of my surroundings -- it helps when working with angry, huge men; and it helps when tissues are needed.

"They sure hide the bathrooms here, don't they?" I continued, pausing just long enough to see him connecting into the conversation. "There is one," I said pointing, "Do you see it?"

He indicated that he saw it and, following the energy of my still-pointed hand, he turned to walk that way. This left me free, for the first time, to look at the son and offer him my smile.

With a deep sigh of gratitude for the discernment, compassion, and strength that moved me, I rejoined my girls at the lion's den.

I have experienced and witnessed that the only way to transmute violence, anger, and fear is with courageous love and compassion. While I do not know what happened to the troubled family, I know that through my compassion, I was able to to connect with the father and provide a pause. I was able to show love and connection to a frightened son and daughter while tensions eased through a smile.

I also know that I was able to continue on in a joyous day with my daughters, detached from any low energy that I may have been susceptible to had I entered into the scene in fight mode.

As I add this experience to my growing collection of "compassion play," I remain awed and reverent to the possibilities of compassion and how we can harness it to effect change.

This is the lesson I wish to learn. This, the power of compassion, is the lesson I wish to pass on to my children.

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