Compassion was not top of mind for me when I was a student at De La Salle. Brother Brian even mentioned it to me when I graduated. I don’t remember the exact words, but they were definitely of the “humble thyself” variety. In the decades since, I often recall his tongue in cheek nudge to pay more attention to the spirit within the people in my life.
It wasn’t just Brother Brian either. Mr. Greene took a meaty chunk of my ego with a C- grade for a (wildly embarrassing) final paper I wrote about Kurt Cobain. Apparently there was good music before 1989 and he wasn’t going to let me forget it.
In retrospect, Brother Brian’s remark was prescient. Compassion doesn’t always arise early – but the opportunity to practice it will come. Compassion, for some of us anyway, can be learned when we’re forced to navigate pain. The pain can be emotional, or existential, or simply thwarted ambition. For me it happened in an MRI machine recently – where I learned the hard way how poorly my body tolerates enclosed spaces.
Immediately I understood colleagues and friends in a way I hadn’t – not firsthand – in my entire life. I wasn’t there for a grave illness, but the panic attack I felt taught me about the sheer physicality of anxiety – something many people confront far more regularly than I do.
For the last nine years, I’ve cofounded two startups and managed a team that grew from a few part time contractors to dozens of full time professionals. Management, I learned repeatedly, is as much about curiosity and care for people as it is numbers and strategy. The best questions I’ve asked myself began by admitting I had failed to use compassion as a guide. Wise words often sting – especially when you’re a teenager – but I am grateful such expectations were clearly spoken to me during my formative years.
In middle school, we are moving headlong into the world. We feel the thrill and impatience of our own abilities and narcissism. We are only beginning to play with volcanic emotions, and yet we are making decisions that often set the trajectory of our lives. Compassion is best communicated through action, and nowhere was that more clear than in the work our teachers do at De La Salle.
I spent my twenties as a foreign correspondent – writing, photographing, filming, and creating narrative podcasts about the former Soviet Union. Then I became an entrepreneur and learned how to navigate the business world. I’ve worn many hats and used many mediums, spending countless hours trying to bring to life the goals and motivations of hundreds of people in storytelling and online platforms.
Through my work and what I’ve learned of the professions of my characters, I’ve grown to admire passionate teachers the most. Their line of work has a direct consequence on the people they are entrusted with, often in ways they never know. It’s more subtle than healing, and more powerful than financing. It’s rooted in an unspoken faith in human potential and wonder, and it has to happen in front of a room of distracted adolescents.
Mr. Witty taught me the showmanship of preparation when he handed us the notes for every class, on different color pages, so we could think critically about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or Native American tribes. I’m amazed when I recall how he’d hold the attention of twenty pre-teens, eager to get to lunch – if you’re reading this and you’re not a teacher, can you imagine a more strenuous task?
Ms. Arcieri taught me about Shakespeare and the stock market, Brother David taught me about negative numbers and what chalk dust tastes like (if you know, you know), and Brother Brian’s Psychology class felt more like a college seminar than a middle school class.
My teachers at De La Salle modelled the power of good men and women, and were committed to inspiring and empowering us. Their dedication allowed us to absorb their high standards as our own. This lifelong gift may be the best inoculation from apathy and unexamined narcissism.
No wonder Brother Brian asked us to read from a holy book of our choosing in homeroom. No wonder he made sure we all saw him reading a newspaper cover to cover in the halls each morning. Compassion comes as much from a moral tradition as an intellectual one and I am deeply grateful that De La Salle taught me how linked those traditions can be.
Compassion means “to suffer with” but it’s also the most reliable way to heal. It’s a miracle in that way – that putting faith in the act of understanding, or asking, or listening or learning can do more to help than any solution could. I’ve grown to believe the more effort I put into understanding the pain and hopes of others, the wider my world becomes and the more blessings I see as they are. So let us always remember that we are in the holy presence of God and each other.