There was a time, it was about 20 years ago, when I worked in a bar. I desperately needed the money. Some friends and I had founded a charity and it took all we had to keep it afloat. I was broke.
I had no previous bar tending experience, but I walked the entire length of several big streets in Glasgow, Scotland, asking the manager of every single bar if they had work available. They all asked about prior experience, learned that I had none, and politely turned me away.
Two hours later, I thought I should change my approach. I began saying I had experience from when I had been a student, just 6 years prior.
It wasn’t exactly a lie. I had been president of the Andersonian Chemical Society (ACS), one of the oldest societies at Strathclyde University, where I did my degree and PhD in chemistry.
During bi-annual ‘cheese and wine’ social events, we supplied boxes of cheap wine and a keg of beer to fellow chemistry students. I don’t ever recall supplying cheese. The other committee members and I ran the ‘bar’ for the evening. I just omitted the fact I hadn’t worked in a real bar.
But I got a job in a lovely wine bar in Glasgow’s West end (Bonhams) and I turned out to be an excellent bar tender over the next 6 months while I worked there.
One of the things I most enjoyed was chatting to people when the bar was quiet. We had all sorts. Regulars included a BBC cameraperson who, among many things, had spent months filming a documentary with the HH Dalai Lama. There was one elderly gent, Jack, who took a seat at the bar every day at noon. You could set your watch by him.
He always ordered a Bells whisky. Straight. No ice. He sipped it at the bar, occasionally exchanging a few words with some of the other regulars.
I’d been working there around a month and hadn’t spoken with Jack all that much outside of a few polite exchanges about the weather and current events.
But one day we got speaking and the story he told floored me. Jack had fought in World War II. One time, after his company was attacked, he ended up separated from the remainder of them.
He was still in his teens and wasn’t even that long out of school. It was so scary being alone and far from home.
He hid in bombed out buildings in a small, deserted town, hoping, praying that someone would come back for him.
But after a few days, his worst fears materialised. A group of German soldiers came through, checking each of the buildings in turn. Jack was terrified.
He frantically searched for a place to hide, but he didn’t have much time. He hid in an upstairs room in one of the broken buildings.
He told me what it was like when a German solider entered the building. “I was shaking with fear,” he said.
He was just a kid. Not long ago, he was doing English, math, and biology at school. How on Earth was he now here, alone, in a strange country, facing the likelihood of being shot and killed?
“I could hear his boots on the rubble and broken glass as he climbed the stairs, then checking each room one at a time,” Jack went on.
The soldier was now so close that Jack was afraid to breathe in case the sound alerted him to his presence. When he entered the room, Jack was hiding behind the door, shaking with fear. Panicked thoughts raced through his head.
“Should I shoot him? But then the others will hear me and they will find me and kill me.”
Any second now, Jack knew. The end was coming. He couldn’t breathe. The fear was suffocating him.
The soldier looked around and saw Jack pressed with his back against the wall with his gun clutched to his chest like it was a prized possession.
“He approached me with his gun raised. I was too scared to raise mine,” Jack whispered.
“He looked in my eyes. He could see my fear. I just couldn’t handle it anymore.”
“My body gave way. I wet myself. Standing right there in front of him.” Jack looked me in the eye as if he was curious how I would react, but I was transfixed by his story.
“That’s when the most unexpected thing happened,” he said.
“He looked at me for a moment, looking down the barrel of his gun. He squinted his eyes a little because he could see the urine leak out of the bottom of my trouser leg. He paused. Then he gave me a kindly, compassionate smile and a gentle nod. And he backed off, making a gesture with his left hand that it was OK.
Then he turned his back and walked away, signalling to the other soldiers that the building was clear.”
The bar was silent. Or at least it was silent for me. Jack was the only person in the world right then, sitting across from me with his hand on his glass of whisky.
“It’s the thing I most remember about the war,” he told me, with kindly eyes and a solemn smile.
It made him a better person, he said. We talked about kindness for a while after that. For the next half century, he took opportunities to help others when he could. The compassion and kindness the soldier showed him in that building had been paid forward a thousand times since.
I’ve reflected on Jack’s story so many times over the years since he shared it with me. It was over twenty years ago that he told it to me.
One thing I’ve thought about recently relates to the war in Ukraine, and wars anywhere, really. It’s easy to think harshly of one side or the other, demonising them, depending on which side you live on. Soldiers are ordered to face each other with the trained thought of killing in mind, even when the thought of taking a life feels abhorrent to many of them even in that context. But it’s their duty.
But within an army are also individuals. Some, perhaps, who have children and are terrific parents but, for one reason or another, find themselves fighting in a war. I’ve wondered often what life had been like for the man who spared Jack’s life.
I’ve prayed that he too survived the war and went home to a loving family. I’ve prayed that he had a long and happy life and that he now has grown up children who are happy.
I’ve thought about writing a short story, maybe even a novel, to highlight the extraordinary act of compassion by the German soldier, imagining how his life and Jack’s life progressed after the war. They never met again. Jack didn’t exactly ask for his name. But maybe in my story, a seemingly random event unites them again. I’ve never gotten around to writing it yet. Maybe one day.
Compassion doesn’t care for nationality or borders. It doesn’t care what colour your skin is. It doesn’t even notice. Compassion isn’t concerned with your history, your allegiances, or what your job is.
Compassion sees suffering and answers that call. Nothing else matters.
Compassion burns through the toughest of exterior.
It melts the hardest of hearts.
I wish nations didn’t fight against each other. I pray for the day when every world leader makes decisions from the mindset that we’re all part of the same family, and works together with other leaders, taking steps to ensure that everyone, regardless of faith or colour, has access to food, clean water, education.
Borders are just lines drawn in the sand.
Of course, we must respect cultures and differences as these have arisen over long periods of time.
But outside of those differences, we’re the same. We have the same biology. We have the same basic needs. And we have the same basic impulses for compassion and kindness.
We are family.
Compassion is our nature.
Kindness is compassion expressed.