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Center for Enlightened Leadership

True Compassion
By Kathleen Alfiero

  Kathleen Alfiero

Kathleen Alfiero

I had never seen such a humongous box of tissues!

My teammates had placed the “extra value” box of Kleenex on my seat during a break to recognize me as the “Most Compassionate” team member. I had cried a lot during our morning session.

Thirteen of us from the school community where I worked as a high school teacher were attending a 10-day intensive retreat on substance abuse during the summer of 1986. That morning we were learning about the challenges that children face when they live with one or more parents who suffer from addiction.

As we focused on the complexities that cause hurt, pain, and confusion for kids from troubled families, I felt overwhelming sadness. During the first three hours of the session, I had used most of the tissues from the regular-size box that the facilitators had provided. I had yet to take on my most challenging job: to learn to lighten up, to learn the true meaning of compassion.

My parents had five children, whom they raised to be good people. My brother and three sisters and I were taught that a good person is someone who is kind and cares deeply about the plight of others—someone who is compassionate.

When we were growing up, our father was the assistant superintendent of the Men’s Reformatory in Windham, Maine. My mother was his secretary. They both worked hard, but Dad worked really long hours. He was pretty much always “on duty,” so it was fitting that his job included many benefits, including an attractive 12-room house and all the food his large, growing (Catholic) family could eat.

Another benefit of Dad’s position was the opportunity to have a “trustee”—one of the inmates whose good behavior had earned him the title—take care of our household during the day. Over the years, we had many different inmates cook, clean, and watch us after school until my mother got home.

The men, most of them sentenced to spend about a year at the reformatory, had been found guilty of committing non-violent crimes such as stealing a car or cashing a bad check. My father assured us, “These guys have done the kinds of bad things that many people do but don’t get caught doing.”

I’ve always been certain that Dad’s compassion and empathy grew out of his childhood circumstances. His father was (and still is) the last police officer in Maine to be killed in the line of duty. The year was 1931 and his murder is still unsolved. Dad was only 11 years old when he took on the role of surrogate father to his siblings and caretaker of his depressed mother. My grandmother had come to America from Ireland as a very young girl and could barely speak English. There was no money coming in after her husband’s death. My father admitted that he stole bread to feed the family.

“We are never better than anyone else,” he always told us. Dad was always molding us into caring people.

My parents were politically liberal. They thought John F. Kennedy was a saint. Teaching us by the clarity of their own example, they concerned themselves with the challenges of black people even though they didn’t personally know anyone of color. They appreciated the difficulties of anyone thought of as an underdog.

Though it was ingrained in us that we have no right to judge others, I remember times when my parents were inconsistent with their message. It confused and disappointed me when they said something unkind about a neighbor or criticized someone they worked with. Yet I always knew that my parents were good people. Even now, so many years later, when I find myself judging others, I never feel good about it. I feel that I have let myself down, but I recognize more strongly than ever that we are all human.

Our serious troubles began when Dad passed away unexpectedly from a massive heart attack when he was only 42 years old. We were all so young, especially Dad. I remember thinking then that he died of a broken heart, full of too much sadness and empathy. Mom demonstrated her resilience and strength, surviving the trauma of her beloved husband’s early death, maybe only because of her intense love for their children.

As a teenager, I felt compassion for my mother and thought of her as a victim of her circumstances. I tried to be a good girl so her life would be easier. Mom had an incredible sense of humor and taught us to laugh at life instead of taking things too seriously. She was a remarkable person and a wonderful mother. She lived to be 91 years old. My appreciation and respect for what my mother did for us grows every day.

Given our strong family belief in being generous to others, it’s not surprising that all five of us have worked in the helping professions. All of us women have had long-lasting careers in social welfare and healthcare. As the only boy, my brother worked hard to be different from his sisters, but even he spent two years working with teenage boys who had entered the juvenile justice system. Being more true to his own interests, he continues to enjoy his long-time career in real estate.

After that substance abuse training session in 1986, I was asked by my school administration to take on a new role as the system’s first High School Substance Abuse Counselor. They had faith in me, and provided me with the training and supervision required by the state to do the job. I pretended to believe I was up to the task when I was signing my new contract, but my uncomfortably stiff neck suggested otherwise!

For my first few years in the job, I worked hard doing everything I could think of to convince kids not to use drugs. Early on, my clinical supervisor said, laughing, “If you were selling vacuum cleaners with as much intensity and conviction as you’re trying to help these kids, you’d be a rich woman!” A part of me knew that it wasn’t entirely a compliment.

I felt as if I was the one doing the worrying about the kids while they didn’t seem to worry about themselves. Many times, I judged their parents, blaming them for their children’s problems. A psychic once “saw” that I was extremely compassionate, but told me that I lacked firmness in my approach. She encouraged me to consider ways to become more emotionally balanced. I paid attention to her advice.

I loved my job and stayed with it for almost twenty years. Young people became my greatest teachers. I lightened up. I realized the benefit to seeking solutions rather than focusing on problems. The wisdom and resilience of the kids I met helped guide me to become clear about what true compassion really is.

True compassion is caring enough about someone to see who they really are, no matter what their behavior or situation. It’s knowing that the challenges they’re experiencing, while uncomfortable, help them to know what they want, and will lead them to new growth. True compassion is simply focusing on that growth, and supporting others from a place of total knowledge of their well-being.

My energy grew as I spent my time with teenagers exploring their interests, talents, brilliance, and purpose. I talked only briefly about the effects of drug use. They felt better when I reminded them what they knew about themselves but had forgotten: that they are magnificent no matter what their behavior. I felt better. I was more true to myself. More and more kids knocked on my door.

Today, I only buy small boxes of tissues for when I might get a cold. I still cry now and then, but less and less. I am happy that I have fine-tuned my perception about compassion. And while it seems sometimes to be the opposite of what I learned from my parents, I still thank them every day for my earlier training and values. I couldn’t have reached my current understanding of life without them. They are a huge part of who I am.

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