The Power of Compassion
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, November/December issue, 2022
One of the common questions women asked me, while I was still a columnist at Flying magazine, was how I’d managed it. Not just getting the job, but finding acceptance and enthusiastic support from a readership that was 96% male. At the time, it baffled me a bit, too. After all, I was the first woman columnist in the magazine’s history, and I was replacing a beloved good old boy from Texas who’d spun tremendous yarns of barnstorming, whiskey, and women for more than 25 years at Flying before finally retiring. Nobody was quite sure, when I was hired, if the readership would approve of such a dramatic shift.
I came up with several theories over the years, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I discovered what the real secret to my success had been. After a diversity talk I’d given at Google, three separate men approached me and said it was the first such talk they’d actually felt engaged with; that had made them want to help women in their midst. I was flattered, but puzzled. The talk had centered on the challenges of being a woman in an overwhelmingly male field. What in that had made such a difference for them?
It took some time for the men to figure it out, but all three finally pointed to a story I’d told about the column that had gotten me the job at Flying. That essay, born from years of observing men from the margins of the aviation world, was about fathers, sons, and airplanes. About how men communicate, how fathers and sons often struggle with those forms of communication and the pain that causes, and how many times I’d seen an airplane bridge that chasm and connect and heal their hearts.
“That story showed you got me,” one of them reflected. “That you cared about something that’s important to me. That made me care about what mattered to you. I wanted to hear what you had to say. And I wanted to help you.”
I knew that column had been popular. But suddenly I realized why, and what that said about not just surviving in a male field, but also building bridges, coalitions, and the kind of powerful sisterhood women so desperately need but often fail to achieve.
Humans tend to form groups based on things that we share with other people. We choose friends because they’re “like” us in some way. And if we’re trying to connect with people, whether at a cocktail party or at work, we instinctively search for common ground we can talk about, even if that area is the size of a postage stamp.
All of that is important. But in writing about fathers, sons, and airplanes, I’d unknowingly tapped an even more powerful connecting agent: compassion and understanding for experiences I didn’t share with those I was trying to reach. It makes sense, if you think about it. Finding common ground with someone doesn’t require us to go far beyond ourselves. We simply look for where, in the other person, we see ourselves reflected. It’s still largely about us. But offering understanding and compassion for parts of a person or group we don’t share is a lot harder. We have to put ourselves aside, at least for a time, and focus on understanding individual, cultural or systemic burdens, pain, pressures, or dreams that we don’t feel or have. And then conveying genuine compassion and respect for those things—even if they aren’t as great as the pain, burdens, or pressures we carry, ourselves. That’s a big ask. But that’s why it’s so powerful.
Asking interested questions and showing compassion for the burdens or pain of others signals to them that we care enough to put ourselves aside and focus on not only seeing and understanding what’s important or different about them, but respecting those differences.
It’s tempting, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, to view the ideal as being blind to differences. But while it’s important not to discriminate on account of difference, and to treat people with just as much regard and respect as we give people from our own “tribe,” we’re not all the same, and we know it. What’s more, we don’t want our differences ignored. We just want them—and whatever unique burdens and pressures we carry because of them—understood, respected, and valued. No matter who we are. That’s why my story about fathers and sons was so powerful. In writing compassionately about a struggle unique to men, I demonstrated a willingness to reach beyond my own perspective to see and respect something important and different about someone else’s culture and experience. That created a bridge, and enough support that when detractors tried to take me down, I had an army of men behind me to help marginalize those actors.
The real significance of that insight, however, is how it applies to any kind of bridge-building we undertake. One of the biggest challenges coalitions face is that although they’re usually formed out of shared injustice, or challenges, they often fracture over the inevitable differences between members. We are not all alike, even if we appear similar based on some shared trait. And we need those differences respected.
It’s often frustrated me that women aren’t better at building unified and supportive sisterhood for each other. It’s not that we don’t support each other at all…Women in Aviation International is a terrific example of women doing just that. But the thing that brings us together—shared need because we’re not at the top of the power pyramid (note that there’s no “Men in Aviation” organization)—isn’t enough. If our bridges are only as strong as what we have in common, they’ll fracture along our differences: working vs. stay-at-home mothers; working mothers vs. women without children; single vs. married; gay vs. straight; women of color vs. white women…the list goes on and on.
If we want to build bridges strong enough to stand up against all the forces working against us, we need to build them out of not only what we share, but also respect and compassion for how we’re different. It’s easy, when we’re so aware of the injustice and limitations of our own particular circumstances, to lose sight of the burdens other people carry. But the truth is, it’s all hard. We all carry burdens of some kind. And they hurt. So if we can put our own perspective aside long enough to try to understand, respect, and honor that pain in others, we can build bridges that don’t fracture; that are resilient, respectful, inclusive, and authentic.
Anger has its place. And it’s a powerful force for motivating and organizing people. But compassion is every bit as important. It’s the mortar that holds the bricks together; what allows us to connect across differences to build the kind of support we need to survive, thrive, and even change the world.