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Continuing the Conversation on Compassion and Compost

Naturally enriching the organizational ecosystem


In the spirit of last week’s discussion of compassion and compost, I thought I could begin this piece by pulling from the place I left off by returning to the work of writer Janisse Ray. I met Ms. Ray for the first time a few weeks ago at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi where she was one of a series of diverse and thought-provoking speakers. Ray hails from the small southern Georgia town of Baxley, which is just 45 minutes or so north of Thomasville, where the Littles and Sweetgrass Dairy that I wrote about last week are located. While we were in Oxford, I bought one of Ray’s seven books (shout out to the folks at Square Books), The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Although I’m only about halfway through, I’m already sure that I’ll be picking up her other offerings soon. 

Janisse Ray’s compassion for the planet and her commitment to just and gentle ways of being in the world drew me in quickly. Her passion for helping restore the ecosystem that the industrial age has undermined, along with her dedication to nature, and traditional farming and foodways is inspiring. Ray’s writing seems a good place to start this second segment of my thoughts on compassion in the workplace and the comparative connection to compost in the organizational ecosystem model. Metaphors can be powerful, and as the co-founder of the Omega Institute*, Elizabeth Lesser, reminds us, “Most of our metaphors come from war and violent sports. … it’s just a reflection of what we value in our culture.” When we change our metaphors, we change the tone of the stories we tell. In the process, we also alter the beliefs that underlie them. As Janisse Ray writes,

Story is transformative. People change because of stories they read. Story is powerful. Because we need to tell the stories of a world in which the things that matter are the main characters. We need to tell new stories of how to navigate the world, how to take care of the earth, how to love each other. Because if we don’t tell our stories, corporations will tell them for us. And that won’t be pretty for the future of the planet. Or the human community.

If you read much business news, you’ll mostly see stories of cash windfalls or, alternatively, terrible falls from corporate grace. Compassion might now and again show up as a sidebar of “human interest,” but it’s hardly likely to be in very many headlines. If we were to invert that emphasis so that compassion came first and finance was a supporting actor, we might find ourselves in a different world. As Janisse Ray said: “People change because of stories they read. Story is powerful.” Yes, the money matters, but as Amy Emberling at the Bakehouse helped me remember, cash can, in fact, be managed compassionately too. Companies can invest in long term organizational health, work to take actions to aid all of those involved with the organization, and work to help to restore ecosystems of all sorts. No single act of compassion fixes all the world’s problems any more than a bit of composting cures climate change, but a lot of steps taken in the right direction do start to add up over time. Founding Food Gatherers out of the Deli, as Paul imagined we might do back in 1988, did not instantly solve every issue in our community, but over the last thirty-three years it has clearly made a positive difference by serving many millions of meals to those who wouldn’t have had one.

Both composting and compassion allow us to take what would have gone to “waste,” and turn it naturally into something that benefits both soil in nature and organizational culture at work. Compost, we know, takes what would have gone to waste in the landfill and turns it, very slowly and naturally over time, into topsoil. One hundred and fifty years ago, Walt Whitman marveled at how composting allows the earth to grow “such sweet things out of such corruptions.” Compassion in the workplace can turn what could have gone awry, or gotten caught up in volleys of angry payback, into constructive conversation and caring action. When we write, and then tell, our stories with compassion as a key player, they slowly, quietly, and naturally end up creating care and humility. These in turn lead to collaboration, more creativity, and an increased willingness to ask for help. 

Last week I briefly referenced Charley Mackesy’s book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. A staff member who has been going through some hard times gifted it to me. She’s found Mackesy’s work super helpful in her struggles. I can see why. The book is beautiful, both on the page visually, and in its content. In the spirit of humility and asking for help, there’s this bit:

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.

“Help,” said the horse.

“When have you been at your strongest?” asked the boy.

“When I have dared to show my weakness.”

“Asking for help isn’t giving up,” said the horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”

This past week, someone else gifted me the same book. I was going to say “coincidentally,” but as Randy Hampton, who worked with us many decades ago at the Deli used to remind me regularly, “There are no coincidences.” (The #28 sandwich at the Deli, Randy’s Routine, is named for him.) To make sure he was ok with me sharing this story, I called Randy, who now teaches out in San Diego. He encouraged me to do so. Randy, like the staff member who kindly gifted me the book a few months back, was also in recovery. No one at the Deli—which at the time had like forty people working on staff—worried about it. Compassion, acceptance, and support were the natural response. Randy worked at the Deli for a number of years before leaving on great terms to go back to his chosen field of scientific study. Many years later, though, he came back to town to tell us about some things he had done during his time here that should not have happened. He owned what had gone awry, wanted to apologize for his actions, and make amends. Compassion, I can see now, was again the order of the day; his push to make peace, acceptance by all, and the plan he recommended for himself to make right what had been done wrong, were all peacefully and calmly put into place. This past year Randy celebrated his 39th year of sobriety, and he openly shares what he’s been through. In doing so, he’s honoring Joy Harjo’s call for us to live compassionately: “You must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.”

Receiving another copy of Mackesy’s book is no coincidence, I can also see, because I know enough to know that ecosystems attract unto themselves. Lindsay Van Zandt, the guest who gave me my second copy, is a long-time customer. Like Randy, Lindsay compassionately encouraged me to share this story. Her mother, Kathy Ashton-Miller passed away earlier this year. Lindsay’s parents, and hence she and her brother, have been coming to the Deli pretty much since we opened. When her mother was dying a year ago, in the midst of Covid and a health-driven ban on indoor gatherings, Lindsay reached out to see if there was any way we could possibly put on one last party for her mom. Folks on our end quickly figured out together how to cater, the food was served outdoors in front of the family home, and the Creamery came to scoop the gelato that her mother loved so much. Along with the book, Lindsay sent a handwritten note: “I have thought about the kindness you all showed my family so many times. … Zingerman’s has always held a special place in my family’s life, and it always will. … It was the last party my mom ever threw, and because of you it was perfect.” 

I’ve cried every time I’ve read, and reread, Lindsay’s thank you note. When we emailed back and forth later, she shared that, “Stage 4 brain cancer was a horrific diagnosis, but my mom found the way to fight it the way she lived her life, with unwavering hope, fierce positivity, and making the most out of what she had been dealt. She made her last months with us magical, just as she made everything she put her heart towards.” Appropriately for this piece, she added, “When I told my mom how angry I was that this was happening to her, and to our family, she simply said, ‘Take your anger and do something good with it.’” Compassion is woven through this whole story. It’s also, I’m starting to see, one the main “characters” in the now nearly four-decades-long story of Zingerman’s. 

The metaphorical connection of compassion and composting has already helped me a lot in the last few months to make many meaningful changes even in the short period of time that the subject has been front of mind for me. I have altered my mindset as I go into each interaction. What follows are nine ways that I can see that happening, each of which supports Monica Worline and Jane Dutton’s 4-step recipe for compassion that I wrote about last week. Each of the nine is offered as a beginning, sharing thoughts that I hope and believe will lead to better things—to do as Otto Scharmer suggests and “Shape something, even on a small scale, to create the reality you want.” 

  1. 1. Accept that I can never fully know what others are experiencing. Focusing on compassion has pushed me to try to be a better listener; to steer clear of any assumption that what I’ve experienced is the same as what others have; to understand that no matter what happens, I will never fully “get” what others are going through. I can, though, work hard to try. As Janisse Ray writes, “Of what use to humanity, I ask myself, is a man who cannot see beyond his own hurt?” 
  2. 2. Weave compassion more effectively into our diversity work. Compassion leads us to learn more, and more caringly, about what others have been through. Hearing everyone’s personal story is a big piece of this. Studying history, as I’ve written elsewhere, is another. Inaccurate or incomplete information will almost inevitably lead to misunderstandings and ineffective actions that come across—regardless of intention—as uncaring. As one example, Algeria Barclay writes, “The average [American] teenager has simply never been exposed to the myriad of stories—from heartening to heroic to harrowing—that comprise the history of Black people in America. And without this exposure, most cannot understand or envision the depth of suffering, injustice, and daily struggle that has defined Black life in America for centuries.” Diversifying our studies can help us to “compost” painful pasts—whether it’s the broader historical past Barclay writes about, or our personal pasts—into constructive, compassionate futures. Futures where we can own our failures, but still work together to improve the quality of everyone’s life. In the last few months alone, reading Kiese Laymon’s Heavy and the Tarana Burke- and Brené Brown-edited You Are Your Best Thing, have increased that for me. As Ms. Burke writes, “We often carry our trauma in similar ways, but the roads that led us to the trauma are all so different. We must pay attention to that road. That road is our humanity. … These experiences create community, and it’s wonderful, but it is still critical to understand the very different paths that led you to the trauma.” The same is true of the stories we all have for age, mental health, politics, religion, varied roles in organizations, etc. 
  3. 3. Embrace the reality that everyone is suffering. This acceptance has made it much easier to look past superficial images that might lead us to believe that someone “has it all.” No one, I’ve come to realize, no matter how many resources they have, has it easy. Even those who have a lot still struggle with suffering. Those who have less, even more so. Michelle Maldonado writes, “When I got into the workplace, even when I got into law school, when I got into these more professional places, what I discovered was there was so much suffering that everybody was trying to hide and pretend that they weren’t experiencing.”
  4. 4. Work harder to build on the idea of positive beliefs. I already know from Natural Law #16 that to get positive outcomes I need to begin with positive beliefs, but this focus on compassion has pushed me to do better still. To remember to believe the best even about those with whom I don’t agree, or those who do things that are very different from how I believe they ought to be done. I realize that if I let myself slip back into negative beliefs, I will be unwittingly contributing to someone else’s suffering, which would be the exact opposite of everything I’m working to do. As Margaret Wheatley writes, “It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”
  5. 5. Focus even more firmly on forgiveness. As Anne Lamott says, “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” Holding onto grudges is doomed. Unfortunately, the stories we see most frequently illustrate the opposite of forgiveness; conflicts continue for centuries, and countries go to war over sleights that happened hundreds of years earlier. Still, Anne Lamott reminds us, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Compassion can help us compost our anger, as Kathy Ashton-Miller lovingly suggested to her daughter, back into caring and creativity. It may not work quickly, but it does work. As Janisse Ray writes, “Compost delivers more nutrients than chemical fertilizers.” 
  6. 6. Commit even more strongly to the section of our 2032 Vision that commits us to love in all we do. Vivek Murthy writes, “Love shows up as kindness, generosity, and compassion.” We have done much to make this happen, but studying compassion has shown me, in the best possible way, how much further we can still go. Humberto Maturana, who passed away this past May at the age of 92, said that love “can only be cultivated by living it.” And he adds, “Through compassion we can help live in love.”
  7. 7. Be more open to exploring my own insecurities. My own anxieties, I know from studying the “shadow self,” lead me to get frustrated with others. Working to weave compassion into my daily work has helped remind me of what Pema Chödrön writes: “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
  8. 8. Work to be more vulnerable in the belief that compassion will come. Rupali Shah writes, “There is compassion and intelligence always around us. If we tune in, we can feel it and we can decide to tune into it more and more.” I’m trying hard to trust even further in the kindness and compassion of the ecosystem around me. To act in the belief that when I share my struggles, others will caringly step forward in support. 
  9. 9. Design systems to increase the odds of compassionate acts occurring. To be effective, we can’t just compost on special occasions. We need to design and commit to regimens that make it happen consistently, over long periods of time. In that context, Monica Worline writes, “Leaders are really important designers of what we call “the social architecture of compassion.” In hindsight, I can see we have done a lot of this here at Zingerman’s without actually saying the word compassion. Our community giving, Servant Leadership, customer service, our Community Chest (a discreet fund for staff members in crisis), our Four Steps to Going Direct, our work around positive beliefs, our teaching on energy, and many more, all orient us toward compassion. Looking ahead, I’m confident we can do more. 

Composting is an old story, one that’s been around in one form or another, since humans began to work the soil. There are ancient techniques from India going back thousands of years that were made known in the west in the first half of the 20th century by Sir Albert Howard, one of the first modern scientists to say, “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” Modern sustainable farming expert Eliot Coleman once said, “Producing quality compost is the most important job on the organic farm. A lot of the problems I see on farms I visit could be solved by making better compost.” The same it would seem could also be true of compassion in the organizational ecosystem—if we were to introduce more compassion into our daily lives, a whole lot of community problems and company shortfalls could potentially be cleared up. 

I have much more to learn about composting. Already though, there are three “principles of good composting” that have helped me see how we can more effectively apply compassion in our organizational ecosystems. 

We can all find our own ways to do this work – Rodale Institute says, “There is no one right way to compost.” Same makes sense for compassion. The beauty of organizational recipes—like Monica Worline and Jane Dutton’s 4-step recipe for compassion—is that they elegantly allow for, and encourage, each of us to find our own way to do the work, while still getting to the desired outcome in ethically sound ways. To work well, compassionate acts must be specific to the situation, appropriate to the individual towards whom they’re directed, and also particular to the person who undertakes them. It could be acting compassionately towards a coworker we like who is struggling. Other times it might be more challenging, like learning to act compassionately towards a vendor who let us down, a coworker who didn’t come through on a commitment, a boss who’s behaving badly, or a colleague whose behaviors trigger us big time. Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it engaging in “the hard work of compassion.”

Eliot Coleman says, “The more eclectic the list of ingredients, the better the compost.” Which I can see now is also true for compassion. Compassion, done well in the workplace, calls on us to adjust each action to the particulars of the situation. As Monica Worline and Jane Dutton write:

The first quality is speed: compassion varies in how quickly it flows after the system detects suffering. Second, compassion varies in scope: the variety or range of different kinds of responses to suffering. Third, compassion varies in its scale: the magnitude or the literal size of the response to suffering. Finally, compassion varies in customization: the degree to which the compassionate response is uniquely tailored to those who are suffering.

Strive for Balance – Every sustainable leader works to balance, rebalance, and rebalance again. When we notice a part of the ecosystem, or a person in it who has less, this is, for me, a prime place to put the four steps into action. Spread the compost around the garden, taking into account which sections within it will need more support so that, in the long run, all the soil will be healthy. With that in mind, I try to keep my “compassion sensors” tuned to be especially sensitive towards those who have less (less pay, less access, less means or support out of work); those who might be most likely to be feel excluded (longevity, race, gender, age, language, etc.). Equity is not just a politically correct buzzword; it’s a way to bring beauty into the organization, bring out the natural talent of those we work with, and, as Spike Lee said, simply to “Do the right thing!”

Be patient – Neither compost, nor compassion, we all know, will provide a quick fix for large and long-standing struggles. If we’re willing to be patient with them, to continue to both believe and to act even in the face of short-term frustrations, good things will clearly come. I try to remind myself that I will likely see few if any immediate results from a single, small act of compassion. Over time though, they can make a meaningful difference. I’m convinced that our cultural soil will be healthier for it, and that everyone and everything “growing in it” will benefit. 

Compost and compassion are only a part of the story of our organizations and of the world at large, but they are important ones. Neither of them leads to dramatic, headline-grabbing, actions, but as Leo Buscaglia says, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” The other evening Tammie and I went out to eat at a very nice, busy, restaurant we like. Tammie asked the server, as she is wont to do, how his evening was going. It seemed an obvious question to the two of us as long service providers, but the server came back later in the evening and, very seriously, said, “You know, in two years of doing this job I think you’re only the second person to ask me that!” 

Environmental activist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy writes, “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.” None of us, least of all me, are going to get this work right every time, but we all can move, both slowly and surely, in the right direction. Together over time we can, one small bit of metaphorical “soil” at a time, move mountains. We can change the role compassion plays in the stories we’re writing, telling, and sharing every day. As Janisse Ray rightly reminds us, “Big problems need one courageous and willing person. Big problems need you doing what you desire to do and doing it with authority, great knowledge and great love.” 


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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