compassWe’ve all done it. We’ve seen someone driving by in their gas guzzling car and grumbled under our breath at them. We’ve rolled our eyes at the teen girls obsessively cruising the make-up aisles. We’ve shaken our heads at the shoppers blithely tossing clothes quite likely made in sweatshops into their carts. We’ve tsked at the overweight family walking into a fast food restaurant.

Even with the best of intentions we judge others based on their choices; sometimes a little feeling of superiority on our part also inadvertently slips in. It’s easy to do. But it’s important as humane educators and citizen activists that we focus on our common ground with others and remember our own frailties.

Whenever I lead a workshop about compassionate, effective activism, I always include an activity called 4 Corners (thanks to fellow IHE graduate, Cari Micala, for introducing us to this one). Here’s how it works:

Around the room, in the 4 corners, I tape up signs that say: “Always,” “Mostly,” “Sometimes,” and “Seldom/Never.” I explain to the group that I’m going to give them a series of statements, and for each one I want them to stand under the sign with the word that most accurately reflects their response to the statement at this time. I also encourage them to be aware of the ebb and flow of how the crowd shifts according to the different statements. Here are examples of statements I’ve used:

  • I take public transit (or alternative transportation).
  • I eat only plant-based foods.
  • I shop at big-box stores.
  • I buy only sweatshop-free items.
  • I buy water in plastic bottles.
  • I think critically about the media I’m exposed to.
  • I buy nothing more than what I need.
  • I make choices that reflect my deepest values.

The participants are always fascinated to see where people stand and how that shifts according to the topic.

I use this activity to help my students remember two important tenets as educators, citizens, and activists:

1. We’re all on a path to humane living (what I call the compassion continuum); we’re just in different places on that path in different areas of our lives, and that’s okay. Sometimes we’re ahead of the crowd; sometimes we have farther to go.

2. We’re more than just the pieces of ourselves. If I stop and judge people based on those parts of them that disturb me (the woman wearing a fur coat; the fact that my brother used to work in a slaughterhouse; the friends who have to buy the latest stuff), then I’m missing out on so much: the big picture of who they are; the chance to find common ground and connect; the opportunity to learn. I certainly don’t want people judging me by the bits that get on their nerves; I hope they see beyond that to the whole — to the person I’m striving to become.

This activity is a great icebreaker for sparking discussion about choices, challenges, assumptions, the compassion continuum, issues of the “other,” judgment, perspective, and so on.

It can also be adapted to a variety of situations — even serving as an icebreaker to get to know people better through simple, non-threatening statements. You can also dispense with the categories (always, sometimes, etc.), and create your own categories to fit the statement. (e.g., “I most love dogs, cats, birds, or fish as animal companions.”)

For more of our humane education activities, check out our Resource Center.

~ Marsha

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