There’s Always More to the Story
Compassion lives in Dubrovnik.
Published: October 5, 2012
by Denise Linn
Wait before passing judgement.
I was in jail once.
It's true, I've been behind bars. (Even just seeing those words in print feels like my teeth are scraping granite.) However, there is a story behind this event in my life.
I was 19 years old and enrolled at Michigan State University and an opportunity arose for me to attend an international journalism conference in what was then called Yugoslavia.
The conference was held in Omis, a small, picturesque seaside town on the Adriatic Sea, and during a break in the conference I decided to visit Dubrovnik, an old seaport city to the south. The bus had been delayed en route, so by the time I arrived, it was getting dark. I went from hotel to inn to pension looking for a place to spend the night. There didn't seem to be a room available in the entire city. It was late, and I was exhausted, so I decided to find a park bench where I could sleep for a while.
This might sound like a strange idea but I had recently been in New York City, reporting on a peace march there, and I'd seen a number of homeless people sleeping on benches in Central Park and figured that I could manage it. I found a faded wooden bench under a tree in a small park by the sea, stuffed my purse under my head and tried to sleep. The bench was hard, and the breeze from the ocean was brisk and chilling. The newspapers I had layered over myself kept flapping in the wind, however, in the early-morning hours, I finally fell asleep.
I was soundly sleeping when there was a sharp tap on my foot. Startled, I opened my eyes. A policeman, holding a nightstick, stood sternly at the foot of my bench. I jumped up with a start. Two more policemen quickly arrived. They talked briskly back and forth to each other, and then gravely looked at me. My mind was scrambling. Was it a crime to sleep on a bench?
"Oh, I'm so sorry," I said, nervously cheerful. "You see, I couldn't find anywhere to sleep last night. You're so kind for waking me, but I'll be on my way now." However, as I turned to hurry away, the nightstick brusquely stopped me. I looked at the cold black baton and up at the men's faces and realized that I was in trouble.
The policemen indicated that I was to follow them. No one spoke English, as I desperately tried to explain that I hadn't meant any harm. I gave up trying to communicate and doggedly resigned myself to going with them.
Shock set in when I was taken to a small bleak containment room in the local police station. The policeman pointed to a wooden chair that was in the center of the room, then abruptly turned and walked out. I had a momentary fear that I was going to be interrogated or worse.
Finally, a large muscular man in uniform came in and asked me a question that I couldn't understand. He repeated the question again—slower and louder—and seemed to get angry that I couldn't comprehend what he was saying. He eventually gave up and motioned for me to step into the jail cell, which was next to the room. I looked through the bars into the tiny room. It was only large enough for a small bed. A sinking feeling filled me as I stepped inside. He pointed to the bed in the cell, gave me a small, tight smile and walked away.
I waited and waited, as the knot in my stomach got tighter. Finally, exhausted from fear and from very few hours of rest on the bench, I curled up in a knot on the bed and fell asleep. After a number of hours, they woke me up as evidently they had found someone who spoke English to translate for me. A young, thin man with pale skin and John Lennon glasses stepped into my cell and sat down next to me on the bed. I told him that I was really sorry that I'd slept on the bench.
"You not trouble," he said. "Police worry for you. They no want nothing happen to you. You safe in jail, no safe on streets."
An enormous wave of relief rolled over me. I hadn't realized how tense I was until my body relaxed after hearing his words. As I left the station, I shook hands with the policemen, relieved to say good-bye.
Lately I've been thinking about this event and musing about the importance of learning the details of a story before passing judgment. Although I wasn't really incarcerated or even caught doing anything illicit, as a sound bite, hearing that I was in jail even just for one evening might sound alarming to some. When they know the whole story, however, understanding dawns. Many times I've started to judge someone's actions...until I heard the reasons why they had acted as they did, and then I was awash with compassion. It really helps to understand the forces at play in someone's life and to know that there is always more to the story.
When I start to make judgments here are some statements that I say to myself that help release judgment:
"I don't know the whole story, but if I did I'd be more compassionate."
"If I walked in the shoes of this person, I'd act and feel exactly the same way."
"If I had the same parents, the same upbringing and the same past lives, I would feel exactly as this person does and I would act exactly as they are acting."
When I repeat these statements to myself, I find that I have more compassion and understanding for others. And, as I said, there's always more to the story.
Denise Linn, the best-selling author of 16 books, has researched healing traditions from cultures around the world for more than 35 years. As a renowned lecturer, author, and visionary, she regularly gives seminars on six continents, and also appears extensively on television and radio shows.