In Honor of Valentine’s Day: The Road to Compassion & How Being Bullied Turned Out to be a Blessing

This is a special post for Valentine’s Day, centered on the theme of compassion, one of the most powerful and transformational forms of love in this world. It’s not necessarily an emotion we’re born with, but instead something we develop through the breaking open of ourselves and our hearts. Just like the lotus that unfurls gorgeous petals from the mud, compassion is an alchemical force that expands the heart to encompass others. It’s a healing agent that only multiplies when acted upon.

COMPASSION: the feeling of empathy for others; the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help. (Wikipedia)

Something you may not know about me is that I was badly bullied for more than a year when I was a little girl in elementary school. My experience recently came up in a conversation with a friend when I shared with her the story of Colin, a boy who told his mother he didn’t have any friends. Colin struggles socially, in part due to a disability. He eats lunch alone in the office every day because the other kids don’t like him and won’t let him sit nearby. His mother had wanted to organize a birthday party for him next month and was heartbroken when she heard the truth about Colin’s experiences at school. In response his mother started a Facebook page with the intention to show Colin that he is loved. In a matter of weeks, the page has gained over one million followers and his story has gone viral. Colin’s mother plans to surprise him on his birthday with all the wonderful comments people have left him from across the globe.

When I read about Colin’s story, two things struck me: we happen to have the same birthday and he is about to turn 11, just two years older than I was when I suffered significant anxiety and sadness each day at school due to the teasing and bullying of some of my peers. My heart dropped at the thought of his loneliness and teetering self-worth. So I wrote to him on the Facebook page and told him a shorter version of the story I’m going to share with you.

“But why did they pick on you?” my friend asked. It was such a direct question and one I hadn’t thought about in many years; I was caught off guard and paused to take a breath. A sharp pang shot through my torso as an image appeared of my 9-year-old self crying each day after school as my bewildered mother looked on, wanting nothing more than to protect her daughter from social humiliation and emotional pain at such a fragile stage of life – a stage when self-esteem either buds or shrinks due to the direct impact of external forces, such as peer approval.

There is no clear answer to my friend’s question, because bullying is rarely about the victim, and almost always about the power the victimizer gains from minimizing another person. In other words, it wasn’t as if I had done something to warrant the attacks. I was just a sensitive and kind girl who was an easy target because I let the taunting affect me. And could anyone blame me? I was in the valley of girlhood, awkward in my skin, feeling the societal pressures of fitting in, the high expectations of beauty, and just barely beginning to know myself. As soon as peers criticized me and my appearance, my self-worth plummeted. Since I’ve always been someone who wears my emotions on my face, my perpetrators could see the instant result of their efforts and they got an ego-boost from that.

Thankfully, my parents, although distressed about the situation, were incredibly supportive (which is more than I can say about my teachers and the school’s administration). Ultimately, they decided to move me to a new school to turn a page and get me into a safer space. Although I was apprehensive at first, it turned out to be the fresh start I needed, and the wounds of the bullying gradually dissipated, replaced by normal coming-of-age joys like sleepover parties, getting my ears pierced, going on my first movie date and buying my first music album. The following year, I purposefully went to a middle school where I knew my elementary tormentors wouldn’t be. And something amazing happened. I made friends – lots of them. I played team sports, I joined choir, and I thrived in my classes. Over time, I grew into a stronger person with a deep sense of justice, individuality and awareness for the wellbeing of those around me.

I began feeling what I now know is compassion. As a result, I actively stood up to peers who treated others poorly, and comforted their victims. I regularly befriended the underdog in school, offering words of encouragement and kindness to those I knew felt left out. After all, I had been through what they went through and I knew it wasn’t right, and moreover, that no one deserved to feel like they’re worth less than they are.

Through Colin’s story and revisiting my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that being bullied as a kid actually turned out to be a great blessing. I am so thankful that I feel for others and know that my heart is big enough to hold so many. Although it is at times painful to feel empathy because a little of another’s pain then becomes my own, I choose to stay open-hearted, or compassionate, because it enriches life and feels right. The truth is, I believe in love. Not just the romantic, gushy kind you might have with a significant other, but the heart-opening, spirit-uplifting, moving-humanity-forward kind that we can have with a perfect stranger. Moments of love like this make life worth living. And they’re contagious, that’s the best part! Compassion shared just grows and grows and grows and grows until it has reached farther than you can ever calculate, moving from person to person, touching lives.

Keep in mind that any kindness you show others will be returned to you ten-fold. I believe this because I’ve witnessed it. Just tonight I received a beautiful letter out of the blue from a friend across the country who I haven’t seen in over a year. In her letter, she described how I’m making a difference in her life through writing on this very blog. Wow. There are several words to describe how that feels to hear, but here’s the first that comes to mind: affirming.

Whatever you do this Valentine’s Day, I hope it involves loving. That’s what it’s all about after all, and not just the holiday, but life in general!

I’ll leave you with a photo of a few Valentines cards I made for friends and family during my lunch break today at work 🙂 Love is in the air — I can feel it! Can you??

A few of my Handmade Valentines Day Cards

A few of my Handmade Valentines Day Cards

Riding the Amsterdam Wave

His weight against by side was reassuring. As the airplane took off, I leaned in. I hate flying. Not much scares me more. But it’s a small sacrifice for the opportunity to see the world. Even though Paul didn’t say it, I think he was afraid too. We sat like that for the next hour, subtly leaning into each other over the armrest. He offered me gum. I tipped my book –The Kite Runner–so he could see the cover. “Have you read it?” He shook his head. “Here, it’s yours,” I said, placing it on his tray table. His eyes lit up and he instantly flipped to the first page to start reading. “It’s sad,” I warned him. He asked me to write my name inside the cover with the date and where i bought the book. I grinned. We are similar…both whimsical. He promised to add his name and pass the book on to another stranger. I wonder how far the book will go.

At the Amsterdam airport, Paul showed me where to buy my train ticket, but when i tried my card, it was rejected. I went to the luck. My visa was rejected again. Thankfully, Paul bought my ticket and then we said our goodbyes.

I got on the wrong train and had to backtrack to get to the Central Station. My friend had given me two addresses: one for his friend’s shop where i could pick up the key to his place, and then the address for his flat. It was dark and half past 10pm when i finally stumbled out of the train station onto a busy night street in the heart of Amsterdam. A couple i had befriended on the train gave me concerned glances; “Do you know where you are going? Is anyone meeting you?” the girl asked. I tried to look confident, “Nope it’s just me and I don’t exactly know where I am going, but I’ll find my way.” But the truth was, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was hungry, exhausted, disoriented and had no money since my card wouldn’t work at the airport.

First things first, never walk in a designated bike lane in Amsterdam; You will get mowed down! I narrowly escaped that fate and learned my lesson quickly. Thankfully, London taught me to look both directions before even stepping off the curb, and i needed to recall that skill, or i might not survive this place. i took a deep breath and snapped into the moment, my senses suddenly heightened as I wove through the crowd of drunk people beneath a dark, starless sky.

If I had known that the first address was in The Red Light District, I might have thought twice about stumbling around in the most notorious neighborhood in the city, alone, with all my belongings hanging vulnerable on my back. About 40 minutes later of trying to read street signs in Dutch, and not having much luck finding the one I was looking for, i realized i was very lost. I stopped in front if a bar and asked two men for directions. “Sorry, No espeak eenglish”. I must have worn my bewilderment on my face, because he reached a big hand to cup the side of my face. I smiled, grateful for the gesture, and trudged on down the street, my shoulders burning under the weight of my pack. If things couldn’t get any worse, I heard a clap of thunder and the clouds opened to dump torrents of rain. I laughed, spread my arms out, and surrendered to the moment. I am in Amsterdam alone at night. Lost. No money. Drenched. Hungry. No phone with which to call a cab and no way to pay for it. Finally, I spoke to a bike taxi driver and he pointed me in the right way. Beneath flashes of lightning and a rumbling sky, I dragged my tired feet to the first address. I rang the bell and no one answered. I was at least two hours late, what did I expect?

I stepped back onto the street, trying to come up with a plan. What options did i have? Staring down the red-lit alleyway where prostitutes in high heels and flourescent colored lingerie led drunk clients into their cubby rooms, a grim thought hovered in my mind. i might have to stay on the street tonight. Discouraged and cold, i walked into the nearest club to find an internet signal. Just as i was connecting to the internet and my shoulders were celebrating the release of their burden, the barman came over and told me I had to buy a drink or leave. But…i began, forget it…why would he believe me that I arrived in this city with no money? I felt like a fool. That’s when a kind man came over and offered to buy be a drink. Once again, I am rescued by the kindness of a stranger! I sent a desperate ‘SOS’ message to my friend and he wrote back that he was on his way. I have never been so happy to see a familiar face in my life!

Since that first night, Amsterdam and I have gotten along very well. The culture is friendly and relaxed. The architecture is breathtaking. People wear crazy patterned pants and bright colors. Everyone bikes and the full work week is 32 hours. People here live life like tomorrow won’t ever come.

Traveling and experiencing all that I have is so good for my soul. I am truly content.