Develop ‘Muscle Memory’ for Compassion


Jan Chapman is a former broadcast journalist, a story teller and a blogger.
My husband and I took a private dance lesson Saturday.

We've been married since “I Love Lucy” was in reruns, and we've never danced. It seemed like something we should try.

The instructor was kind and patient and didn't laugh at us once. One, two, quick-step … One, two, quick-step. "Hand a little higher on her back." "Hold his shoulder there." "Feet a little more toward middle." "Elbow up." "Smaller steps." "Quicker steps." "Ready to try a turn?"

And then there was the matter of making it all move with the music …

When we got in the car, we were tired but a little bit impressed with ourselves. We'd actually managed some jagged, almost in time with the music, dancing. We resolved to practice.

"It will take a while for the muscle memory to kick in," my husband said.

Ya think? I laughed.

Muscle memory is a wonderful thing. It helps us drive a car, shoot a basketball with accuracy, play a guitar … even speak. Here's how it works: As we reinforce certain movements through repetition, our neural system learns what we're doing to the point that we no longer need to think about doing it. We move to a dance floor, face our partner, and dance without counting or looking at our feet. I can't wait.

Isn't it amazing what we can learn when we want to?

I'm wondering today if it's possible to develop a muscle memory for our compassion response.

Could I drive up to an intersection and roll down my window to kindly greet the homeless man without thinking about it? Could I pull over to check on the woman with the flat tire, run to open the door for the man in the wheelchair, write a check to ONE.org without weighing other options?

Is there a way to affix compassion to my auto-pilot dashboard?

Every religion compels compassion. Here's a beginner's sampler:

Christianity: Whatever you would have people do for you, do the same for them; this covers the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

Brahmanism: This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you. (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (UdanaVarga 5:18)

Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. (Analects 15:23)

Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Sunnah)

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Taoism: Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. (T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien)

Still, I fear we've spent more time developing our "I'm right" muscle than our "I'm compassionate" muscle. Isn't that the value we stop to consider before we respond in compassion: What's the right thing to do? And doesn't the pondering of that question often mean we miss the moment at hand, the one in which compassion is needed?

Like getting out of step with the music, we become suddenly awkward with Life.

I'm going to believe we just need more practice:

One, two, love your neighbor … one, two, as you love yourself.

Jan Chapman is a former broadcast journalist, a story teller and a blogger. She is a member of Church of the Savior, a UCC congregation with Baptist roots in Austin, Texas. She blogs at Thinking in Peaces.

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