“I can’t imagine,” we say. We hear about shootings and war and about an alligator snatching a toddler in one of the most magical places on earth. These are the things of nightmares. “I can’t imagine what those poor families are going through,” we say.
The thing is though, we can imagine. If you’re like me, you not only imagine, but you do so in great detail. I picture myself standing next to a Disney lake, my face tipped toward the fading Florida sun, my little boy next to me one second, the next, snatched. Underwater. Gone. Disbelief, horror, shock… the things nightmares are made of.
I can picture myself texting my grown son. Him, hiding in a bathroom while gunshots spill the blood of those he was laughing with moments before. I can imagine screaming when I get no more replies to my “ARE YOU OKAY??” texts… the things nightmares are made of.
What if I told you that imaging is where true compassion begins? That rather than judging and saying “Duh, alligators are everywhere in Florida,” when we imagine, we feel compassion, empathy, and love for fellow humans. When we choose to not place blame, we’re able to imagine the faces of those suffering. We’re able to feel true compassion for them.
A woman I know had a son. While she’ll always have a son, he’s no longer here. He committed suicide as a teenager. People would’ve understood had she taken to bed and never gotten up. Instead, she travels to high schools and tells her son’s story. She talks to teens. She spreads hope and reminds kids that life changes quickly. While today may be awful, next month may be the best they’ve ever had. She does not blame. Rather than being angry that classmates were cruel to her son, she loves them. Tells them that if they ever feel desperate enough to end their lives, that she’s there. That they can call her, no matter what.
It was warm for San Francisco. I walked to the bagel shop across from my hotel, passing several homeless people on my way. While walking, I browsed through the photos on my phone from last night’s meal. I’d ended up paying and was freaking out a little about how much I’d spent on this trip. When I got to the bagel place, there was a man, head bent, dirty, a paper cup of coffee cradled between his hands. I wondered whether he’d be insulted if I bought him a breakfast sandwich. I got to the register and ordered 12 of them. “What type of bagels?” the cashier asked. “Mix them up,” I said. “The best ones, I guess.”
I got my order and walked over to the man holding his coffee. “I hope it’s okay,” I started. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t know I was talking to him. “Sir?”
He jumped a little bit, started to get up. “I’m sorry!” I said. Did he think he needed to leave?
“I’m sorry. Perhaps you’ve eaten already but you remind me of someone and…” I didn’t know what to say. I handed him a breakfast sandwich from my bag. He sat again, didn’t look at me. I felt like a dick and turned away.
“Bless you.” I’m not sure whether he said it or whether it was coming from the bag I held in my hands or from somebody else, but I turned back and put my hand on his arm. I wanted him to know I saw him.
He looked up, smiled, turned, and opened his sandwich. The rest, I passed out along the way back to the hotel thinking about how little it was.
How our meal the night before that included two bottles of wine would have paid for a sleeping bag, socks, and 100 more breakfast sandwiches.
“It’s something,” the empty bag whispered. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s more than I did for him yesterday.” I got back to the hotel and looked in the mirror. “You’re so old,” I thought.
“You’re beautiful,” I said to my reflection.
Just now, as I was finally ready to read what I’ve written and send it to Lisa who kindly asked me to write for #1000Speak this month and then moved my Monday deadline to Wednesday and then to today “or soon,” my son came downstairs with his iPad. His dad had agreed to watch him tonight while I write, and I was annoyed.
He pressed the play button on a YouTube video, and I expected to see Parkour or farts or waterslide videos. Instead, it was the story of Lego.
“17 minutes?” I thought. Too long! I need to write!
I remembered the man at the bagel shop and the time I told mirror-me that she’s beautiful, and I closed my laptop.
His-too-big-for-lap-sitting body sat on my lap. Together, we watched the video from beginning to end. Every now and then, he looked up at me. Checking whether I was paying attention. Each time, I held him tighter. Kissed his neck. Stroked his hair.
The video ended.
“Thank you,” I said. “For what, Mommy?”
“For wanting to share this with me. For coming down.”
“You like Lego,” he said. He kissed my cheek and ran upstairs, saying something about needing to build a robot suit.
Feeling compassion can lead to change. It’s people like you and me and each of us who freed slaves, gave women the right to vote, and made it so that people with disabilities aren’t locked away. People like you and me are why my son received the support he needed in preschool to learn to use his voice so that one day, he too will be able to say “that’s not right,” and affect change. We’re why he has the support he needs today. We are why.
We’re heroes, friends. Each of us and all of us. We’re the ones who can choose light rather than blame, and hope for change rather than fear. Our compassion can change the world.
We choose things each day. While walking to buy coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we choose to see or not-so-much see those around us. While we look into mirrors and feel old or beautiful. When we make a choice between nesting in bed or talking to teenagers about suicide. We choose.
I know that buying a homeless person a few extra minutes to sit in a shop while he eats eggs and cheese on a bagel isn’t much.
I also know that it’s a start, and that imagination is always better than blame. Here’s to imagining ourselves to a better world every day and on all of the days.
Kristi Rieger Campbell’s passion is writing and drawing stupid-looking pictures for her blog, Finding Ninee. It began with a memoir about her special-needs son Tucker, abandoned when she read that a publisher would rather shave a cat than read another memoir.
Kristi writes for a variety of parenting websites including Huffington Post Parents, has been published in several popular anthologies, received 2014 BlogHer’s Voice of the Year People’s Choice Award, and was a proud cast member of the 2014 DC Listen to Your Mother show.