What if another’s injury could feel like our own, even if we had never suffered that injury ourselves? What if we could take to heart another’s disappointment or trial?

A dog waits in a locked car during a summer heat wave. The windows of the car are cracked only slightly for ventilation. The car has been parked in the shade. No water has been left for the dog, and he is panting.

A man who does not have use of his legs drives his specially equipped van to go shopping for groceries during a snowstorm. What was it like for him getting ready? Did he find his hat easily, and his keys and his glasses? Did he remember his shopping list? What if the list slipped under a table? Imagine the search. Imagine the retrieval.

Sometimes I magnify my own discomforts in my mind so I can approach another’s suffering. I turn traffic jams into pesky flies on festering sores. I turn a critical remark into an onslaught from a nearby tribe. I turn a bothersome heat into a crop parching drought, a rainy day into a monsoon. I turn the longing for personal space into a lifetime of sharing one room with ten other people.

In truth, I can’t come close to these experiences when I imagine them, no matter what amount of time I take to try to do that, no matter how strong my intent to dive deeply. But the effort inspires in me an ever-growing gratitude for my own life, as well as a finer-tuned understanding of those whose lives I encounter every day.

Alone one night, lonesome for my daughter Jenny who had just left for her home in Colorado, I thought of mothers separated from their children, for whatever reason, and I became those mothers. I became my own mother who bravely with stood loneliness and illness after my father died.

So, too, I have become children in foreign countries who are warehoused in orphanages, pets taken to the pound or abandoned because they no longer are of any use of pleasure to the families that have owned them for their lifetimes, boulders (thousands of years old) upended from their resting places.

My “grandmother” is an old woman I have never met who lives in China or Spain or Russia. My “son” is a man making his home in the Australian Outback or in a castle in France. My “granddaughter” is a little girl who lives on the plains of Africa or Egypt. My “brother” is the pine outside my door. My “sisters” are the whales in the ocean and he osprey circling above the field beyond my cabin.

Frontiers of compassion are expanding-beyond our homes, beyond our workplace, beyond our neighborhood. Anywhere we happen to be is the perfect site for our ministry.

We are not isolated even if we want to be. Born of the same earth, warmed by the same sun, we breathe the breath of plants and trees and each other. The dust of our bones becomes the soil that feeds our gardens. What we put on our crops to protect them, the wind brings cross-country to someone else’s field.

If I were an artist, I would paint an outline of myself and put inside it the richness of life all around me. I would paint mountains, and waterfalls, and fossils, and sky and animals, and rocks and plants. I would paint clouds of joy and oceans of suffering. I would add planets whirling around suns. My eyes would be stars. My hair would be seaweed. My skin would be of roses and of lilies. If I painted long enough, the outline I made of myself would be gone. I’d be no less than the world all around.

Maggie Davis


  • Maggie Davis is an author, publisher and volunteer community caregiver living in East Blue Hill, Maine. In 1993, after being published in New York and elsewhere for nearly two decades, she created Heartsong Books to move her books into the world in person-to-person ways that reflected the all-embracing vision expressed on their pages.

    Maggie Steincrohn Davis is co-founder of Neighborcare-a joyful band of volunteers offering free-of-charge, health-related assistance in thirteen towns and beyond since 1995. Read The Neighborcare Story here at the Empowering Caregivers Site.