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What Picking Up Other People’s Garbage Unexpectedly Taught Me About Compassion

“Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.” ~ Joan Halifax

I was taking one of my nearly daily OBP 365 walks and I came across a McDonald’s bag, either tossed by someone from a moving car or perhaps left there by someone who had pulled over to eat (it was right near the private beaches on Pequot Ave. in New London, CT, where, no matter what time of year, folks pull over to take in the view, party, read, have lunch, or just be quiet).

I walked past the bag…and then stopped. I turned around, walked back, and picked it up, along with a bunch of other trash that was lying nearby. Bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, etc. I picked it all up and continued walking, picking up trash as I went, and dumping it into various trash receptacles along the way.

I was not disgusted or angry. I didn’t have thoughts like, “people shouldn’t litter” or “people are such slobs.” I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement. I actually took photos of some of the handfuls of garbage I collected.




There’s another part of this story…one that goes back 30 years or so. Back then I would secretly eat fast food in my car and then toss the garbage out the car window as I was driving, usually in the dark and (I was hoping) with no one else around.

Back then I was angry and full of self-loathing, although I didn’t know it at the time. Sure I knew it wasn’t right, but pain of the guilt of littering didn’t outweigh the pain I had inside.

And so perhaps, in the moment that I decided to turn around and pick up that McDonald’s bag on the side of the road, I felt the pain whomever had left it there. Because I certainly wasn’t doing it out of guilt or to make up for the times when I, myself, had littered.

And I choose to feel compassion rather than disgust.

In her TED talk Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax says that while compassion is present in all of us, that it is an inherent human quality, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured…that the conditions for compassion to be activated are very particular.

She tells us that compassion is comprised of the capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering, the ability to stand strong and recognize that we are not separate from suffering, the desire to transform suffering, engaging in activities that transform suffering, and, most importantly not being attached to outcome (because being attached to outcomes deeply distorts our ability to be fully present).

I didn’t know this when I was picking up the trash the other day. In fact, I only came across Joan’s TED talk last night (thank you Tonia).

She goes on to say that the conditions for compassion to be activated in a person are particular. And that the enemies of compassion are pity, moral outrage, fear.

I know a lot about pity, moral outrage, and fear. I woke up to those qualities in myself about 10 years ago and I’ve been, by turns, rejecting and embracing them. That’s why I like to write about defensiveness, anger, lying, and shame.

Joan also says that neuroscience has shown that compassion has certain qualities. A person who is cultivating compassion feels suffering more deeply than those who are not, but is also able to return to baseline sooner.

This is resilience.

Compassion also enhances neural integration (meaning that it hooks up all parts of the brain) as well as immunity.

I’ve got tears streaming down my face as I write this because I’ve often wondered about my capacity to not only feel true compassion, but to act from that feeling.

That I can is a revelation and a relief.

It’s funny what the simple act of picking up someone else’s garbage taught me.

Have you ever learned an unexpected lesson like this?



  • Posted August 8, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Most often the best lessons are the unexpected, *AHA*s. The fact that you went back to your secret eating days was obviously a trigger. I believe it has to be unexpected to get us to the revelation. You can’t plan for something like this.

    • KCLAnderson
      Posted August 8, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes! Exactly! The thoughts, feelings, and actions that streamed from making the decision to pick up that bag amaze me!

  • Posted August 8, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Gorgeous post, and wonderful life lesson. I love the idea that learning and practicing compassion helps us to be resilient.

    • KCLAnderson
      Posted August 8, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      I know, right? And helps us stay healthy too!

  • Posted August 8, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I have been slow to see the pain other people carry under all the bluster. The CEO of the company I work for is a bully and unreasonable and it took me a long time to realize that he was in pain and fear and just desperately trying to keep his head above water in the only ways he knew how. That made it a lot easier for me to deal with him.
    I also have to be grateful for a friend from my gym who has immersed herself in a very spiritual life and always has a different perspective on situations. I see how happy she is and how wonderful she is with every person and I want to learn from her. She has affected a number of people at our gym in the same way.

    • KCLAnderson
      Posted August 8, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I know people like that too (the happy ones)…and am striving to live similarly!

  • Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Compassion, I was once told, is an absolute absence of judgment. Thanks mom, that lesson has serve me well through the years.

    • KCLAnderson
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Yeah…and, being human makes it hard to be in that place for very long :-)

  • James Griffin
    Posted November 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Being compassionate is not being a wimp. It takes strength to demonstrate that one adheres to his principles and is unafraid of others’ opinions. I suspect that the “others” wished they had the strength also to be compassionate, but fear that they would be considered weak for doing so.

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  • […] “Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.” ~ Joan Halifax I was taking one of my nearly daily OBP 365 walks and I came across a McDonald’s bag, either tossed by someone from a moving car or perhaps left there by someone who …  […]