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Enter Into Compassion

There are two doors. The one on the left has the sign TWTWW. The one on the right says Compassion.

The left door stands for The Way The World Works.  If you enter that you will find it’s crowded with people arguing.  They are researchers who have done their homework. Their papers are annotated with long bibliographies to support their theories. They are passionately arguing about the reasons and the causes of the world’s problems. Each invested in their own particular view because they have so much proof to back up their argument. Yet they can’t get everyone to agree.

The right door marked Compassion is eerily quiet. There are 2 rows of beds, most of them filled with people who seem to be near death. As you walk quietly through this room you realize it is a sterilized palliative care ward with white sheets and walls, and no sign of nursing staff. 

You decide to walk through the aisle. You see a woman, thin and pale. She is someone you love and she doesn’t know you are there. You softly say hello and there is no response. You say her name and she turns to you and smiles. You ask her if she remembers you and her eyes close as if to return to sleep.  You tell her you are here to help. You list all the therapies available that might cure her of the disease she is dying from. 

You are beginning to feel a panic rise from your stomach as you wonder if there was anyone there to help her or whether they gave up too soon.  Then a nurse appears and reminds you that this is a hospice. You feel your voice rising to a higher pitch as you interrogate. The friend you love who is dying turns away from you at this point. You are losing her. So you pull up a chair and sit quietly by her bed. Listen to her breathe for awhile, then you begin to sing very quietly:

            May I be filled with loving kindness, may I be well.
            May I be peaceful and at ease, may I be whole.

Then your friend slowly turns toward you, opens her eyes, and manages a feint smile.

            May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be well.
            May you be peaceful and at ease, may you be whole.

Slowly she moves her arm over her body towards the side of the bed where you sit.  You take her hand very gently and you sing

            May we be filled with loving kindness, may we be well.
            May we be peaceful and at ease, may we be whole.

All the muscles in her face relax as she sinks into her last exhalation. You weep silently and eventually leave.

Your heart is heavy and full of sorrow but you feel at peace because you were able to be with her as she left your world. You don’t know why she turned away when you offered to help or why she turned toward you when you sat quietly beside her. You don’t know what advised you to do that but it was clear then that was the right thing to do. Was it your imagination when you felt something was guiding you.  Was it you singing or was it someone else? What made you visit at that time?

There are no answers to your questions. You have no knowledge other than an intuitive pull. All you know is that you were there and you felt honoured to be there.

There have been many times when I was afraid to feel compassion, to express sympathy. Somehow it felt more like an intrusion into another's pain, to satisfy myself that I did something rather than nothing. Would I, through my own ignorance say something that was really harmful or hurtful?

What is compassion anyway? 

My introduction came through child birth. The nervous system reflecting away from myself and into life within and then around me. The first time I held a newborn infant I saw the shape of  responsibility to feel compassion, to keep this creature safe so he will survive.  How would I know how to do that?
After this infant opened his eyes and smiled, the realization that I was not the centre of the universe was a whole body awakening. It was a new entry into life, an unaffected being who came through me, revealing a deeper meaning as I rocked him in my arms. His fragile body said forget all that you think you know.

The pregnant body invaded the self-centred ego and reverberated back to the world. I think this is an apt metaphor for all men and women regardless of whether they have children or not, who see their life as being a conduit to new life whether it is a legal document, a piece of art, or a new community.

Wherever our task becomes one of caring for the other, the other becomes part of us. We suspend the judgement and learn to look into another’s eyes and see there what we see rather than what we have been told to see.

All of these eyes have different stories that can merge into a single narrative.  But being available to “thou” is a grounding alternative to “I” as Martin Buber pointed out in his book where “you” become half of what “I” am.  It is a shared responsibility where I neither feel I am to blame if you are not happy, or triumphant if you are. 

The world is with me and not about me, I can be open to what you think and feel and hope for without being an accomplice. I can help you find what you need by getting out of your way, by asking you how I can help.

To simply be with you, to listen and to feel what I feel as I hear your narrative. 

The stories you tell are embedded with layers of suffering and hope. This is how I enter into compassion.  To be with you – your achievements, your moments of disappointment, your grief.

Compassion doesn’t demand style or expertise – it demands presence. Compassion doesn’t ask for advice. It doesn’t ask for a fix. It’s asks for a witness, a friend, a person who hears and sees.

When we enter into compassion we simply have to be there, to get beneath the labels and intellectual constructs. To look into the face of suffering, the eyes of pain, while there, forget the narrative circling our own lives. Forget the economic forecasts, the daily news, and all that we pride ourselves on knowing. Compassion allows us to let down all the flags, all the defenses. It allows us to look into another person’s face and see a unique and indescribable beauty. It allows us a break from that inner critic that keeps feeding back a report on how we are doing.

The folks in the TWTWW room are important. They musn’t stop their research, the annotated bibliographies, their argumentation. Their compassion is invested in a better future for all, but the palliative care ward, the small song, the reaching hand is needed to provide the strength and support to endure.

I close with the words of a young Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank in Day by Day, ed. Chaim Stern (Beacon Press) hiding in an annex from the Nazis.

I can feel the suffering of millions
and yet, if I look up into the heavens,
I think it will all come right,
and that this cruelty too will end,
and that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime,
I must uphold my ideals,
for perhaps the time will come
when I shall be able to carry them out.


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