The Science of Compassion #1000Speak

Image courtesy of Kitt O'Malley via

Image courtesy of Kitt O’Malley via

What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.

– Jalal al-Din Rumi, “What Was Told, That”

While driving home from the hospital today, a female caller phoned my favorite radio station pleading for prayer on behalf of her four-year-old nephew, Adam. “He has been in the hospital the last few days and just had surgery,” her voice trembled, “he’s not doing so well.” As she spoke, I felt a blanket of warmth within my chest, and then a dull sting behind my eyes before tears began to run down my cheeks. I do not know this woman or her nephew, nor do I know the specifics of their current situation. Yet there I was, crying for them. And the question that came to mind was: Why?

Contrary to my positing in “Compassion is a Muscle”, we are hard-wired for compassion (I know. I checked.). We have brain cells, called mirror neurons, which help us to empathize and socialize with others. We have the vagus nerve system, which fires with compassionate response in moments of trauma and trouble. And then there’s our intelligence: our hearts.

At the HeartMath Research Institute, in Boulder Creek, California, scientists are studying the heart-brain connection. Director of Research, Rollin McCraty, says this:

Over the past 18 years, our research center has investigated heart and brain interactions: how the heart and the brain communicate with each other and how that affects consciousness in our perceptions. One of the things we identified in our research was the state we now call coherence. And what we found was that when we’re feeling positive emotions, like we’re really appreciating the sunset, or really feeling love or compassion or care for someone, that the heart beats a very different message. The heart generates, by far, the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field produced in the body and what we’ve now found is that if we look at the spectrum analysis of the magnetic field created by the heart, that emotional information is actually encoded and modulating into those fields. So, by learning to shift our emotions, that’s changing the information we’re encoding into the magnetic field radiated by the heart and that can impact those around us. We are fundamentally and deeply interconnected with each other and the planet itself and what we do individually really does count; it matters.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s easy to think: I’m just one person. What can I possibly do? But the slivers of hope, kindness, affection, compassion, and love matter. You: your voice, your pen, your generosity, your intentionality, your heart matter.

The scaffolding of our humanity is cooperation and democracy. We see it from insects to primates. We see it in the flight of the starlings and the acrobatics of schools of fish. We see it in communities of chimpanzees and herds of deer.  And, of course, we see it in human beings:

A solitary human being actually is an impossibility. You come into being because a community, of two persons, happened… The truth of who we are is that we are because we belong.

– Desmond Tutu

Oftentimes, the world tells us that we are different and shows us those differences. It tells us to stand out, be better, be smarter, be richer. It tells us we’ll be happy when we have more, not when we are more. It tells us that wealth, power and status matter and we, as a society, honor those who have such things. In so doing, we create separation and competition instead of fostering proximity and compassion. In so doing, the heart suffers.

We are all connected. All of us. I share my DNA with my sister, but I also share thousands of genes with fish and insects and trees and birds. They are my relatives and they are yours. So, if we believe in the science of science and the science of heart, then harming another, harming nature, is, in fact, harming our family.

Coleman Barks, poet and author of “The Essential Rumi” asks us what if: what if “the friend, the beloved, was everyone.”

I leave you by asking the same.


What a dying mother taught me about living

You may have seen her in the news. And if you haven’t, you likely will.

Her name is Ashley Bridges. She’s 24. And she’s dying.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home.  Image courtesy of CNN.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home. Image courtesy of CNN.

What caught my attention, other than the precious image of Ashley and Paisley, was the story’s title: “Mother’s Ultimate Sacrifice for Newborn”.

I thought of those words. I thought of the daily and hourly sacrifices mothers make. Then thought of the sacrifices mothers-in-heart make for babies that will often never be: round after round, poke after poke, loss after loss. And I had to know hers.

I watched a short news clip about Ashley: how last November she found out she was expecting, just 10 weeks before being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant bone cancer. How the doctors told her to terminate her pregnancy and start treatment. And how she’d immediately refused.  Her response was complex in its simplicity:

“There’s no way I could kill a healthy baby because I’m sick.”

Ashley kept herself as healthy as possible.  She made plans, tried to live normally, and shortly after reaching 8 months gestation was given another diagnosis: a terminal one. The cancer had spread. Delaying chemotherapy had robbed her of time. And hope.  Her doctors suggested inducing labor, followed by aggressive chemotherapy, but warned it would gift her a year, if that.

So there she sits, as the camera zooms in: blue-eyed, lovely, and dying, with little Paisley nestled sweetly at her side. I watch, feeling guilty for my intrusion, and wonder:

Will she ever realize what a supreme sacrifice her mother made?
And more…
Will she ever understand how it’s possible to be loved that much?

As the extra chambers of my mother’s heart swell, I hear the answer. It taps at the door of my soul and solemnly whispers: Yes. She will understand. When she is a mother.

The truth is this: whether we believe it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are all terminal.  Sure, we may not walk the same path as Ashley. And perhaps our hourglasses will have a few more turns than hers, but we all have an expiration date. Her doctors know hers, just as the Great Physician knows ours.

I don’t pretend to know cancer intimately. And I don’t pretend to have the answers. But maybe Ashley does. Maybe living in and loving through every second is hers. Maybe being here, heart-tethered to this space, this moment, and this unique “blessing” is hers.

Those answers don’t mean she hasn’t cried, cursed and cowered. I’m sure she has. But she is confronting her choice, her ultimate sacrifice, with a lion’s heart…a mother’s heart.  And her answers are her own.

Her closing comment about Paisley is heartrending in its clarity:

“Maybe I’m not supposed to be here and she is.”

Maybe not, Ashley.

But know this: you personify the greatest and most noble of gifts: love.

And that gift will outlive us all.

If you’d like to see the interview, click here

And if you’d like to donate to Ashley’s Recovery Fund, follow this link:


Our hearts and hands

Our hearts and hands

Nine years ago (this week), I stood at the entrance of a small, glass chapel in southern Brazil.  Inside sat a crowd of beautifully dressed strangers.  The women, painted like porcelain dolls, looked at me, then through me, as my layers of tulle were fluffed and my father tenderly took my hand in his.

“You ready?”, he asked.

I smiled that smile, looked down the aisle to my future husband,  and nodded my head.  Then I started down the satin runner.

I was not ready to get married.

I was ready to pick out a sparkling diamond, make seating charts and choose a delicious assortment of truffles.  I was ready to take engagement pictures, stamp and seal invites, and send for our set of ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ towels.  I was ready to select bridesmaids, a tiara and a gorgeous gown.

I was ready for a wedding


a marriage.

I thought I knew a lot.  And, looking back, I did about select things…a few things…teeny, tiny things.  But when it came to the big things, turns out, I was quite naive.

I didn’t know much about myself.

I hadn’t put in the time.

I hadn’t done the work.

I hadn’t removed my mask (you know the one) and peered into my ugly places; the ones we try to convince ourselves, and others, we don’t have.

In short, I hadn’t been real.  Not as real as marriage deserves.  Not as real as my future husband deserved.

My husband and I both come from what others have defined as “broken” homes.  My parents fell out of love, out of like and out of respect with each other.  In the end, they could barely breathe the same air without being covered by a thick, gauzy haze of dislike and disgust. My in-laws’ end was similar, but more amicable, which led their children to believe reconciliation was possible, if not probable.

During our courtship, we spent hours identifying their mistakes and planning how to avoid making the same.

“We’re going to do things differently.”

“We’re going to be happy.”

“We’re going to love til it hurts…”

And we have…

And. We. Do.

After 11 years together (nine of those married), I’ve learned a lot.

I’d like to think I’m more kind and less cruel.  More accepting and less judgmental.  More loving and less vindictive.  More appreciative and less envious.  More transparent and less dishonest.  More for us and less for myself.

I’d like to think that I know more than that 24-year-old who looked down the aisle and neglected to see her future standing there with moist green eyes and a smile laced with hope and possibility.  Who neglected to understand the gravity of such a choice


that she’d made the right one.

Maybe you don’t fall in love just once, but over and over again, with the same person.  The one who has seen you and your heart at their ugliest and chooses you through it and despite it.

Maybe that’s the lesson.

Maybe that’s all we need to know.