January 31


The Remarkable and Stunning Thing About Compassion by Molly B. Burnham

When I taught third grade, one of my many struggles was staying on schedule. My students were constantly reminding me it was time for something or that we were late for something or that we were supposed to be doing something that we were not. This caused a certain amount of distress for them and also for me. All of us distracted and uncomfortable, and although, I could see this, I resisted fixing the problem. 

In writing jargon, I would probably be described as a pantser not a planner. I hate jargon. Yes, it serves a purpose, but it also creates boxes and the only boxes I like are the ones with presents in them. To be clear, my writing always begins with a plan. In the case of The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing my plan was to write a story about a problem-solver, Dottie, whose grandfather has died and who sets out to save her grandmother from grief.

That was the plan.

Then the pantser showed up and the girl was no longer a problem-solver but a question-asker. The grandfather was no longer dead, now it was the grandmother. And Dottie was no longer simply trying to sort out someone else’s grief. Now, she was trying to additionally sort out her own grief. Even for me this was a lot of changes and no matter how my brain functions change is never easy. I longed for these changes and yet I also didn’t. It would be so much simpler if they went away. Of course, they didn’t, and I was forced to follow these threads and not the initial ones I had laid out. Probably the most annoying quality about change is that it brings insight. Through my inability to stick with a plan, I made changes, and through these changes, I found the heart of my story. The story I really wanted to tell. Yes, The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing is about grief. But I have discovered that it is truly about compassion.

Compassion comes from Latin and means to suffer together. Compassion, unlike empathy and sympathy, is active. It asks us to engage in a deeper way. One that allows for feeling, names the feeling, acknowledges the feeling—both in ourselves and in others.

The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing is about the compassion we must engage with to be able to grow (change). We must see our pain and be with it. Not run away from it. Not try to fix it or indulge it. The Infinite Questions of Dottie Bing is about the compassion we must engage with to see the pain of others and be with it. Not run away from it. Not try to fix it and not indulge it. Of course, there is a time and a place for helping and healing, but first, there is compassion.

The need for compassion pops up all over the place. I must engage with compassion when I make mistakes, when I have a hard time following a direction, when I have no idea where my writing is going, or when I am annoyed with my cat for meowing loudly. (Surprisingly, sometimes I need compassion when I feel joy and happiness.) When I experience compassion for myself, I am more able to extend it to others. It is, in fact, through compassion that change occurs. It is from compassion that we discover how to truly help. It is out of compassion that an infinite number of solutions arise.

Writing this book has given me the words, the understanding, that I did not have back in the third-grade classroom. Luckily, I did have a spark of it because I finally approached my problem (I am not perfect) with compassion (it’s okay not to be perfect) and that’s when the solution appeared. With compassion, I opened up to action and released my resistance. Along with line leader, attendance helper, door holder (and all the other classroom jobs we had), we created THE REMINDER whose task was to keep me on schedule.

The remarkable and stunning thing about compassion is that, thanks to it, we all become happier. In this case, I was happier because a third grader was telling me what to do and who doesn’t love that? But even better, the students were happier because they got to tell an adult what to do and, really, what third grader doesn’t love that?


MollyBurnham_9590Molly B. Burnham has been a dog walker, ice-cream scooper, and elementary school teacher. The author of the Teddy Mars series, she earned an MFA in children’s writing from Hamline University and was the 2016 winner of The Sid Fleischman Award for Humor. Molly lives in Massachusetts with her family.