06/09/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

To alleviate suffering and cultivate compassion in our lives, one of the first things we need to do is expand our awareness of what's happening around us. Most of the time, we rush around oblivious of what challenges others are facing in their lives.

Too often we stay enclosed within a relatively limited perspective of life by focusing on our own personal problems, needs, activities, and desires. These needs are certainly important and are not to be downplayed; however, it is equally important to lift ourselves out of our self-absorption, discouragement, and depression. We can do this by enlarging the circumference of our awareness by practicing compassion toward others.

For instance, we pass the housekeeping staff in hotel hallways pushing heavy vats of laundry, do we take the time to acknowledge them as fellow humans or pass them by as if they are no more than the plants and fixtures in the hotel? Taking a moment to smile, greet, or even thank them for making our stay comfortable is not a difficult task. Such simple expressions allow us to connect with others, ease our hearts with a gentle touch of shared humanity.

At work, we may encounter people who are successful, intelligent, and kind. Yet, something about these seemingly successful people seems a "little off." They too have a story, and maybe they wish to connect with us at some personal level as well. A wealthy colleague of mine lived with her husband in the suburbs of California. As she took her leisurely evening walk around the neighborhood, she would look at the houses and glance into the windows and see people laughing, sharing dinner, or just sitting in their living rooms chatting in front of a roaring fire. To her, these neighbors looked so content. Also, her own home from the outside appeared nice and filled with joy and beauty. But a secret hid behind those walls and doors. Her husband, who had been out of work for some time, was extremely anxious and angry. He often drank too much and then lost his temper. He attacked her verbally, or hit and shoved her in a fit of rage. She kept thinking things would change if he could only get a job, but the physical abuse was progressively worsening. One night, after he had punched her in the face, the police came to the door because neighbors had called them after hearing screaming and crashing sounds. Even when help arrived, my colleague tried to protect the image of a happy marriage by telling the police that she had lost her footing and fallen down the staircase.

Not only in our daily life at home, but even when traveling, we can come across opportunities to share our compassion. A few years ago, I was at a national conference at a four-star hotel in Chevy Chase, Maryland. On the second day, I dashed up to my room to get a book and other things that I needed. As I entered the open doorway, I heard the sound of sobbing coming from inside. I hesitated briefly, not wanting to intrude, but since I needed my items, I decided to enter. From the bathroom, I could hear someone crying. Then a young woman stepped out, looked at me with embarrassment, and apologized. She said she didn't want to disturb me and would return to finish cleaning the room later. After assuring her that she is not disturbing me, I asked, "Do you need help?" as I reached for my wallet to give her some money. "Oh no, that's not it," she said. "My son in the Dominican Republic is extremely ill, and he may not survive according to the doctors. I haven't seen him in eight years, and I might not be able to ever see him again." I told her I was truly sorry to hear this and asked if there was anything I could do. She said that she felt better just being able to tell me of her sorrow. Are we willing to take time to listen compassionately to the sorrows or concerns of those around us or even strangers? Every person has a story. If we can just remember to listen, we can proceed without criticism and blame, and maintain an open sense of well-wishing, respect, and kind regard -- important characteristics of true compassion.