“Foolish Compassion” – The 19th of September 1993 – Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

(found on a nightstand, between a pair of plaster eagle statues)

Dear Lydia,

I’ve been thinking about something for quite a while, so I figure I’d just share it.

It’s been on my mind quite a bit lately, but so has most of everything else, if I’m honest.

I don’t know how much I ever told you about my grandfather. He grew up in a small town, a dying coal town somewhere out there, in between the west and the east. It’s a place a lot of people don’t seem to get out of, once they find themselves stuck in it. But he got his kids out to college, and he did it by working his whole life in a butcher shop. He was the kind of person who’d spend a weekend wading around a flooded basement and never even think of calling a plumber. He was a tough, independent man and a hard worker and an entrepreneur and all those other red-blooded American man qualities. But that’s never why I admired him.

I admired him because he was the most selflessly generous man I’ve ever met. I admire him because he was compassionate to ridiculous and stupid extremes. At least, that’s how I remember him. At least, that’s how I choose to.

He’d shovel feet of snow off his sidewalk every winter, and he’d shovel his neighbor’s sidewalks too. He did this until he died, and he did it because he felt his neighbors – retirees just like him – needed the help. Luckily he wasn’t bedridden until the summer. Even if his cancer had come six months earlier, I’m certain that he would have dragged himself and his IV down the stairs and out to the sidewalk to shovel snow.

The story that best demonstrates both his compassion and his wonderful foolishness is one that revolves around the removal of stitches. My grandfather was a butcher, so he had the tools and the skills of a butcher. The tools and the skills of a butcher must resemble the tools and skills of a surgeon because there was this one time when he had to remove stitches from his own arm. The doctor was away on vacation, and the stitches were starting to irritate his wound as it healed. So he cut them out, bandaged it up and was none the poorer for it.

A few days later, a woman comes into his shop, and she’s complaining about her stitches. The doctor was still away on vacation, skiing up in the mountains. My grandfather saw someone in pain (as slight and seemingly insignificant a pain as it was), and he understood there was a way that he could do something to help. So he offered to remove the woman’s stitches. He sanitized his tools, and he did the best job he could, and he removed the woman’s stitches. He went to check on her throughout the rest of the week to make sure she was healing properly. He drove her to the doctor when he returned from the Poconos.

And whenever anyone tried to thank him for his work, whenever someone even tried to acknowledge his good deeds, he would always say the same thing. He’d say “thanks is for strangers.” Then he’d get on to the next thing, the next good deed – small or large – that he could do for another person.

I’m convinced that the world changes that way. It doesn’t change through technological innovation or entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn’t change through religion or politics or government or anything like that. The world changes – and the world gets better – because there are some individuals who are courageous enough to be completely, entirely and foolishly compassionate and selfless. And they are willing to do that even when it’s tough to do. And they are willing to do that for no thanks – even when it’s offered.

Impossible as it may seem, I wish that we’d all be that way – foolishly compassionate. There can’t be enough of that in the world.

All of my best,




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  1. That is a wonderful story. Your grandfather sounds like someone who quite simply found out how to be happy. I agree this is what moves humans and the world on, striving to help take a little of the pain away for others in whatever way you can. Great post.

    1. Thank you so much, both for reading and for the kind comment. He was a marvelous man, my grandfather, and he continues to inspire me to this day.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more. When we feel helpless in this sometimes violent world in which most of the media focuses on this violence, this is what we need to remember. We do have power in dealing with our own lives and in responding to those around us. I enjoyed your blog. Thanks for following mine! Judy

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing.

      I hope our fellow blogger is able to find some inspiration here! 🙂

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