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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Compassion and Rules

Christa Metzger
Christa Metzger

Compassion is a constant theme, a basic tenet, a defining virtue that recurs in all world religions—compassion for others, for animals and plants, for our environment and our planet, and compassion for ourselves. Being compassionate is said to be a part of human nature. However, it takes both mental and emotional intention to practice compassion, especially with regard to rules.

The interplay between compassion and rules has always fascinated me. Rules are necessary, to be sure, but how they are implemented is related to the degree of compassion shown by those enforcing them. Every society, group, organization, and system has rules that govern the behavior of members. Countries have laws, written policies are the lifeblood of institutions, and all organizations have rules that determine how things are done day by day.

Schools have myriad rules: for various spaces and who is allowed to inhabit them, for how children must line up, for student discipline, for appropriate communication (based on your place in the hierarchy), and for how best to get ahead.

As a small but vivid means of illustrating some points about this topic of rules, allow me to discuss rules for…dogs. My husband and I own two little Shih Tzus that often accompany us on trips. When we take them to Germany, they are allowed inside most restaurants. Here in the U.S., however, dogs are seldom allowed in any dining establishment. They are sometimes permitted to sit with owners in an outdoor eating area, but only if there is no fence around such an area. (Are dogs really such a health hazard?)

In January we took our two dogs on a cross-country airplane flight from our home in North Carolina to Seattle. They must travel in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of us. The airline rule is that dogs must stay sealed in their little carriers during the entire flight, including in waiting areas at airports. Obeying this rule meant that the dogs would be contained for the 14 hours from our home to a grassy spot outside the airport on the west coast. And for the trip to Germany that we make each year, that’s about 22 hours of confinement inside the carrier!

Needless to say, we always hope that we’ll encounter kind and compassionate airline personnel on our journeys. Not surprisingly, though, we’ve encountered two kinds of people: There are the rule-enforcers who seem to delight in telling you to put your dog back in its little cell. And then there are those who show more of a heart and either ignore this rule or adjust it so as to be more compassionate.

I’ve often wondered about those who made this confining rule and whether, in addition to the ostensible reason for making it, they considered the consequences on the animals and people involved. Rule-makers have a responsibility to think and feel deeply enough so that rules take into account the actual felt needs of real people. To consult both the head and the heart seems to me to be essential in making a rule, in assessing its consequences, and in enforcing it.

Some rules end up outliving their original purpose; they’re bound to be bent or broken because they are inhumane or impractical. Instead, let me suggest that leaders modify rules and make exceptions for the needs of individuals or groups whenever possible. Such modifications require thinking creatively in each situation and sometimes taking the risk that a new precedent of practice might be created. However, as history has shown, if enough people break a rule, it’s a sign that the rule may need changing.

But back to our Seattle trip: This was the first airplane trip for our nine-month-old puppy, Bella. The first leg of our flight was on a small propeller-driven aircraft—noisy and bumpy. I had purchased a thinly woven large scarf that I could throw over her when I put her in my lap, which I did. The flight attendant observed Bella’s wriggling movements under the scarf, even though I tried to create a distraction by fidgeting with the tray table. (I was definitely a rule-breaker.) Smiling, she said to me, “Are you a nervous traveler?” What a delightful remark by an obviously compassionate rule-enforcer!

The next part of the flight—about five hours from Charlotte to Seattle—didn’t go as well. Little Bella, still frightened, had her head out of the carrier bag; the rest of her was zipped inside. As I was petting her, the chief flight attendant made me stuff her head back inside (with that gleeful look of a rule-enforcer). Help came from a more compassionate attendant who had observed the incident. She spoke briefly to her superior, then returned to tell me that it would be okay to allow Bella’s little head outside. After we reached our cruising altitude and the cabin lights were dimmed, I unzipped both dogs’ bags to let them stretch out on the floor. I draped the scarf over the folding tray and over my lap to hide my awful deed.

Now I don’t really enjoy being a rule-breaker; it requires secrecy and some skill in avoiding detection. But there are times when there just isn’t another humane option!

On the return trip, after changing planes twice, we decided to walk the dogs through the Charlotte airport to our final gate. They gave joy and smiles to nearly everyone who saw them, especially little Bella prancing with her top knot and pink bow. We had almost reached our gate when a woman with a badge (an obvious rule-enforcer) stopped my husband and ordered that the dogs be put back into their bags. I ignored her and walked faster.

I’ve had other experiences that didn’t go as smoothly, such as when a restroom guard (rule-enforcer) wouldn’t even let me fill a cup with water for my dog after an 11-hour plane ride back from Germany, where we don’t give them water before boarding due to the length of the flight. Unreasonable and unbendable rules and uncompassionate enforcers leave a bad taste in your mouth.

I wonder how many of our students, parents, teachers, staff, and others in our school systems (as well as in other institutions created to serve humans) have a bad taste in their mouths because of strictly enforced rules that just don’t make sense, or rules that treat people of all ages as less than human, with no consideration for their unique needs and no respect for their dignity.

I know my examples were “only” dog stories, but I hope you get my point about compassion and rules in our organizations.

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