Something I didn’t know… that the Latin root of the word ‘compassion’ means “to bear with” or “to suffer with” (com + pati).
Nouwen writes that, “to live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer.” Compassion “holds back from quick, eager explanations” in the face of another’s suffering.
The Encylopedia of Death & Dying speaks of empathy, which it attributes to be a component of compassion, thus:
Empathy requires an openness to receiving and holding the other’s experience without reservation or judgment. Empathy is passive but absolutely attentive. It involves entering into and staying present in the painful experience of the other without moving away from that experience by trying to change it. Empathy establishes a deep connection of mutual vulnerability and intimacy.
With these definitions, it’s a lot clearer why we fail to experience much compassion in our lives. How many of us can bear to stay in our own place of pain, let alone others’? Indeed, it’s not a great leap to infer, as Nouwen does, that perhaps the reason we skirt other people’s pain and cannot bear to look at their suffering squarely is because it reminds us of our own vulnerability, and the suffering we try to avoid confronting in our own lives.
I think we’ve all had the experience when we are down or upset over something. The last thing we need in such times is to hear someone insist that ‘everything is ok’, or perhaps even worse, to have someone rationally point out all the reasons why we shouldn’t be upset at all. Such efforts to ‘knock logic into us’ or to ‘cheer us up’ usually fail miserably, and only serves to intensify our pain. For now, on top of the hurt we originally felt, we can add on guilt for feeling the way we do, and the additional pressure to ‘put on a brave face’ for the world.
Let’s turn the tables and think of moments when we’ve faced someone else’s suffering. Perhaps we felt sorry for them, perhaps we felt annoyed that they seemed blind to their blessings. In all cases, whether we said anything or not, did we not feel discomfitted? Did we not wish that the suffering was not there? Perhaps we choose to avoid the person in pain. Or perhaps we stay and try to cheer him/her up. But if we stay, how often do we allow the person to penetrate his/her pain without our interference?
Some wise people have said that the way to trascend suffering is not to avoid it, but to go through it. That requires time, and it often involves a lot of emotional upheavals. Healing takes time, and it requires us to understand our own pains, forgive ourselves and others, and then move on. When we don’t have the patience to let others take the time they need to work through their issues, we fail to dwell in their place of pain… we fail to show compassion. Instead, we end up trying to manipulate their lives and telling them how to live. Nouwen comments that our tendency to tell people how they should live stems from our own inability to endure acknowledging our pain.
I have often been guilty of that. Especially during times when I feel that things are so clear to me, I lose patience with those who seem to be mired in the fog of their own emotional confusion. I forget all too easily that in such times, what my loved ones need most is not advice, rationalizations or even cheerful words. Above all, they need to face their pain squarely. But the first step to that is for them to feel the unfairness of it all. They need to grieve, mourn, or rage before they can move on. Whether or not I can bear to feel their pain and acknowledge their suffering says more about my own ability to face my pain than it does about how they deal with theirs.
Compassion must begin with myself. Can I bear to suffer with myself? Can I face the pain attentively without judging myself?
In The Betrayal of Self, the psychoanalyst Arno Gruen shows how “the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our suffering.” Perhaps the next time we try to skirt our own suffering and deny our pain, we should spare a thought for others. :P
I realize that a lot of my recent entries have been ‘heavier-reading’ ones. Well, I don’t find them heavy… but I’m aware not everyone has my tolerance for ‘mental and emotional gymnastics’. *ha ha*
We-ell, it just happens that these entries reflect what I’m reading. These are issues that I feel are important for me to think about, and which I usually never take the time to. Putting it down in words help me to further articulate my own reflections to myself. As a bonus, I also put it ‘out-there’…and share what I’m thinking with you.
Still, the next opportunity I can find something witty or funny to blog about, I will. Even I miss blogging about funny stuff. Well, Zibin’s coming into town again today. Let’s hope we can all count on the monkey in him to bring on something hilarious! *evil grin*
Oh, and btw, the two people that were foremost in my mind when I thought of how I’ve failed to be compassionate are my own brother and mother. They’ve both gone through some really rough personal patches, and though I tried hard, there were times when my patience ran out. Now that I think of it, I think it wasn’t just selfishness that severed my patience. Ah, the new things we learn everyday…
Btw, John was made an honorary Guard (u noe, those guys with the khaki berets) on Wednesday for outstanding service (kind of like how universities bestow honorary PhDs on people). Well done, John! *beams*