My pastor Gordon Cosby tells the story of when he was young and asked an elderly minister, “What advice can you give me?”
The older man said, “Remember that every person in the pew is holding an invisible bucket of tears.”
Gordon would start his class in spiritual growth with this question: tell us your name and your deepest pain. As shocking as that was, people would do it. Out it would come: my husband abandoned me with four children and I can’t forgive him; my younger sister died of cancer at 24; my mother has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize me. The sharing of pain bonded us in our vulnerability. Nobody was superior, nobody had to pretend. Everyone was accepted just as we were, because we all had suffered. Gordon said, “We love each other for our weakness, not our strength.” We were connected. It was a huge gift.
I’ve thought of that many times as a mediator. In the rare cases when I find myself disliking a party, it helps to take a minute and imagine his/her bucket of tears. It softens me and allows me to retain positive regard for that person, even when he or she is difficult. And sure enough, if we’re able to keep the conversation going, the pain will be revealed and the dynamic will change.
Master mediator Kenneth Cloke puts this another way. He says, “When someone is behaving badly, I ask myself, what would make me act like that?” He looks into his own bucket, and finds the answer.
Almost any conflict can be resolved once parties are able to see each other’s humanity. Out goes demonizing, in comes compassion. In fact, that’s a good definition of compassion: the ability to see another’s invisible bucket of tears.