Compassion When It’s Not Pretty: 4 Lessons From A Lost Sister

Nearly 15 years ago I lost my sister in Los Angeles.  Her boyfriend had just kicked her out of the house, various collectors began calling me about unpaid bills and she was briefly incarcerated.  During the preceding two years she had stolen jewelry from my parents and had become estranged from all of her friends. A social worker from the county jail called me and asked if we could offer assistance as they had no resources available.

Despite her recent history I flew immediately to LA to try to help.  We found her a safe place to live and arranged monthly financial support so she would be less likely to be on the streets.  Throughout the couple days I spent with her she constantly berated me about past transgressions, told me she had numerous “executive” positions lined up, and that I should buy her a Mercedes because she “deserved it.” Her on and off psychiatrist suggested that she be diagnosed with a “personality disorder.”

It wasn’t pretty and she was my sister.  What I’ve taken from this experience is the following:

  • It’s easier to be compassionate when someone thanks you.  We always appreciate acknowledgement for our good deeds whether donations, compliments, or invitations. When the recognition is missing we wonder if we made a difference.
  • We like the recipients of compassion to be people we can touch even if they are ill, physically disabled or impoverished.  If they are like my sister and resist any real or metaphorical physical contact, we often turn away because we value reciprocity.
  • We hope that those we aid will make progress and return to a consistently higher life quality with us.  My sister has been up and down multiple times and the “down” can be very discouraging.
  • When we stretch beyond the compassion gap we feel we’ve done the right thing and it often doesn’t feel joyful.  It just feels like the right thing and it often improves the outcome for everyone.  There is no fanfare or big dinner for donors.  Despite the ups and downs my sister has had a stable place to live for over 10 years.

The application of these lessons to business and other areas of life are profound.  Compassion is a very simple thing and when practiced diligently it can yield a simple result. The rub is that in practicing compassion it truly has to be about the other person without expectation of reward. Compassion is not about you.

Nearly 30 years ago I was at the State Legislature advocating for the interests of people with severe disabilities.  My very conservative local representative told me we were fortunate to be supporting “God’s children” and he showed us a picture of himself and a young woman with Down Syndrome.  “I’ll do all I can to help kids like this, but it’s the malingerers I don’t understand.”  And maybe that’s it.  It’s hard to understand because when we see someone who appears to look “normal” like each of us, how could they so desperately need our compassion and support?