Compassion for Self and Others

There was a CBC program quite a few years ago, in the Ideas series, that was called The World of the Child. One of the many speakers was educator, John Holt. His comments still resonate with me.
I think the social virtues are overflowing, they are surplus. People have enough kindness for others when they have              enough kindness for themselves–otherwise not. … My very strong feeling is that if children are allowed a growing up            which enables them to become adults with a strong sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will              extend these feelings to include other people.

The key thought here, one that strikes me both as profoundly true and equally difficult to reaize, is that kindness to oneself is a precondition for kindness to others and that a sense of our own worth is a precondition for a sense of the worth of others.

We perhaps think more readily of kindness and compassion as something directed towards others more than, and even rather than, towards ourselves. It seems to Holt that kindness towards others is an overflow from kindness to ourselves or else it is absent. I agree and would like to try explain it by speaking first of compassion as a caring space around the pain of another–and ourselves, and seeing the alternative as a wall around ourselves behind which we hide and from which we attack others as a kind of sniper.

When someone brings their pain to us (or vice versa), the best we can offer is not advice, answers, or a defensive wall, but a caring space, a safe place, a place of compassion, a space that is empty, so to speak, rather than filled with our own “clutter.” This largely silent and listening presence allows another to be where and how they are, without defence or pretence. If our own compassion has been stretched far enough by the joy and sorrow of our life, then we can, in some limited way, offer a space of compassion around the pain of another, that makes real to them, that there is something vaster than their suffering, and that this sorrow need not take away all their meaning and hope, even though it still may feel that way.

One personal memory that comes to mind here, from a slightly different angle, is the two and a half weeks, I was able to spend with my mother, at the end of her life. She found very difficult the time between when she had concluded her life, so to speak, and when she actually died. there was nothing I could “do,” except to “be” there, which I sensed was better than not being there. Later it struck me that the basic gift we have to offer one another is precisely our presence (which comes from the Latin words “being-there”), and that any gifts, skills, and actions do not replace but only build on that presence.

But to have that uncluttered but caring space to offer, we need to become free of the need to defend or justify ourselves or to attack someone perceived as a threat. This is something most of us can probably manage only on occasion We may perhaps best consider this as a direction to move towards, a place at which we may never fully or consistently arrive. To the extent that we feel insecure or threatened, or in a situation that appears in some sense dangerous, we need to build protective walls around ourselves. These walls become ever higher as we feel the need to hide behind them. They readily become a fortress from which to attack others. And they seem in the end to become a prison that entraps us.

The only way out, it seems, is to have a sense that our sacred worth is something that goes with who we are and not with what we achieve or possess, all of which can be lost in an instant. As Holt suggests, it may well require that someone see the sacred worth in us and treat us accordingly, especially as children, before we can come to see and feel it in ourselves. This is not to deny that there are situations in which trust and openness are not possible or advisable. It is to say that they are possible only when we are moving towards a sense of our own worth as intrinsic, as going with our very existence, as something we are, and so as something that we cannot lose but only lose sight of, or fail to realize in a way that is deeply felt.

To the extent that we do have that sense of sacred worth, we are able–in appropriate situations–to be without walls of defence or offence, and to have an empty space around us, a caring space, a home space, where others can enter and remain and leave, without being imprisoned or rejected but accepted.

Henri Nouwen, a writer who speaks of personal growth as rooted in sacred worth notes that the Greek word for compassion means to feel in your guts, and the Hebrew word means to feel in your womb. In both cases, it means to sense in your deepest centre. To be compassionate to another is to feel something of their pain in our own guts, which implies an openness to let it enter safely and without barriers.

Other writers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Wayne Muller, stress repeatedly as we noted last week that there is some measure of suffering in every human life, that life sometimes just hurts. And so all of us need some compassion, including compassion for ourselves. To achieve such compassion for ourselves and gradually extending beyond ourselves to others can be a slow and difficult process. The usual practices of reflective reading or podcasts, moderate exercise, healthy diet, conversations with friends, some outreach activity and the like, can be helpful.

Perhaps also helpful is the recognition that life sometimes hurts and that to feel sad or hurt or other painful feelings, are part of life, that they are not something to blame ourselves for, and do not detract from our sacred worth. A nineteenth century cleric, John Vianney, commented that suffering passes but having suffering does not. I think his thought is echoed in the Oedipus plays and the writings of Viktor Frankl, that these sorrows can be a source of inner strength and wisdom. It seems, however, that this is a process that occurs only over a period of time, and perhaps with the support of intelligently caring others. To recall again favourite words from Henri Nouwen: the true friend is not the person with the answers, but the one who sticks it out with you when there are no answers.

May each of you discover more and more a profound and enduring compassion for yourselves, and one that gradually radiates to all who come within the circle of your light.

October 24, 2021

Sacredness beyond Sorrow

In my thoughts over the past while a few themes have emerged. The most basic and underlying strand running through all I have listened to and read is that there is a sacredness, a value or worth to each and every human being and to all that is, living and non-living. This theme has also been the current that runs through my whole life and work. Yet it has been as much, if not more, something to struggle towards rather than a conviction readily seen and lived from.
In reflecting on this matter, among many other things, some New Testament stories come to mind–the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, and the parables of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. So too do the writings of Henri Nouwen and the podcasts I have been listening to. The story of Narcissus from Greek mythology and the story of Sleeping Beauty from Western folk tales also resonate.
In all these thoughts and stories, there is this same underlying theme of the basic sacredness, value, and worth of the person, and extending to all of creation. At the same time, it is recognized as something always there, but seen only with a great deal of struggle, and discovered on the other side of whatever pain, sorrow, or suffering has become part of our life. The greatest struggle and the greatest pain come not only from events inflicted from without or limitations arising from within, but their impact that feeds what is already present within us–the fear that we of no worth, that there is something radically wrong with us, that we are unlovable. Beneath all their layers, all the oral and written traditions affirm both this underlying truth of our sacred worth and of the struggle involved in recognizing that truth.
Henri Nouwen puts it in these words: “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” This again is the heart of the story of the baptism of Jesus, which calls us to tune into the truest and deepest voice within us, the voice that calls us a beloved daughter or son, the voice of our sacredness. It is the core of the transfiguration story which says that if we see to the heart of any of us, we will discover a radiant beauty. If we did so, says Thomas Merton, all the darkness and cruelty of life would disappear..
The Good Shepherd psalm tells us: “ Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me. … and I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” The first letter of John states that “perfect love casts out fear.” What is deepest and truest in life is a life-affirming, a life-generating presence or force that makes for life, growth, meaning, forgiveness, healing, and renewal, that is more than, yet perhaps most fully realized on the other side of pain and fear. To live within and from this “house” is to be at home to ourselves and our sacredness and so able to be at home to others as well.  The story of the healing of the paralytic suggests that to experience forgiveness, is to realize that our sacredness is deeper than any brokenness and wrongness. We are then free from the paralysis of fearing that we are no good and are able to get up and walk again.
Very briefly, the story of Narcissus suggests that we will run from love and intimacy and inflict hurt on others until we come to an image of ourselves as lovable. This is an experience of death and rebirth. The story of Sleeping Beauty also indicates that sometimes we do have hedges of thorns around us to ward off any possible hurt. Yet this self-enclosing wall puts us into a sleep-like state of unawareness. As in the story of the prodigal son, sometimes it takes another to awaken us–or perhaps listen us–into the truth of our own sacredness.
Perhaps in future reflections, we can look a little more intensely into some of these stories. We may conclude this week with restating the underlying theme of the sacred worth of each of us, to which we only slowly awaken after some struggle and sorrow. And perhaps the challenge for us is to help one another awaken to this truth.  And perhaps we do so, certainly by social struggle according to our gifts, but also by listening to one another’s stories and to the storyteller, and discovering together that each of us has a sacred story and that we are each a sacred storyteller.
Norman King

Calling All Kids

Calling All Kids!

Hey there kids! Come gather around.
This grandma’s got something to say.
The virus has turned our world upside down
and none of us likes it this way.

But here’s the thing about where we are;
grownups are struggling with all that is new.
Like making sure to keep all of you safe
and sometimes forget you’re struggling too.

They’re worried ’bout going to work or not.
That’s what parents have been thinking about.
But school’s on the minds now of all of you kids
and whether you’re in or you’re out.

Should you go to school or learn by remote?
We’re all trying to decide the best way.
Is it better or safer to learn from home,
or in school with your friends ev’ry day?

You kids are struggling with all kinds of things,
and wondering what you should do.
And all of us adults must keep that in mind,
and make time to touch base with you.

Jane Ripley 2020