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