It was a routine visit to my podiatrist—a relatively minor recurring condition. As the doctor began examining my foot, he asked how my life was going. I mentioned that I had just returned from a nine-day silent retreat, part of a yearlong course to become a counselor to the dying and the bereaved. After his initial astonishment at the thought of not talking for nine days, he quite unexpectedly became reflective, his gaze taking on a faraway look.

The next day was the second anniversary of his partner’s death. Joe, my podiatrist, began telling me of his deceased lover: how gifted he was, how acclaimed as an artist, yet how modest and unassuming at the same time. Joe spoke of the pleasure he derived from giving his lover moral support and a stable home life. His eyes glistened as he spoke of their devotion to one another.

As an HIV counselor, I try to stay cognizant of boundaries. I was acutely aware that my doctor’s self-disclosure was highly unusual in a professional setting. But I dismissed this thought. My compassionate presence was more important to both of us than simply complying with any rigid notion of doctor-patient decorum. I saw clearly Joe’s good heart, and I became aware of how deeply wounded he still was by the loss of his life’s love.

I watched as tears filled his eyes, and he apologized for his “unprofessionalism.” I shook my head and encouraged him to continue. I knew I was holding a safe space for him, that it was my compassion for him and his partner that enabled Joe to speak.

Having been trained at Shanti in listening from the heart, I felt privileged to witness such intimate feelings and thoughts from someone I had known only in a professional setting. As I was leaving, Joe gave me a hug and thanked me for listening to him. With a tender smile on his face, he told me he was taking the next day off to honor his partner’s memory.

As I left his office, continuing on to mine, I felt sorrow and I felt love—Joe’s, mine, everyone’s. I learned—again—how spontaneously our heart’s compassion can arise when we least expect it.

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