Recently, a woman I met told me about her daughter who is living in South America. Her daughter is being threatened by a powerful crime family for setting up a business in their geographic area. The mother said, “I just told her, when the universe knocks you around it’s because you need to be knocked around. It’s to make you stronger for something coming down the road. You have to take it!”
I wanted to argue with the ideas implicit in her statements –that the universe is deliberately harsh and punishing, that human beings only learn and become strong from hardship and, by inference, that helping others might interfere with the difficulties they “need.” But I could feel my reactivity, and I was guessing this wasn’t about rational arguments. Eventually, as judgement gave way to inquiry, I wondered what had prompted the woman’s comment to her daughter. Was she distancing herself from her daughter’s difficult and dangerous situation? Was she trying to move away from her fear for her daughter? Maybe she’s afraid her worry will swallow her whole. Her daughter is a long way away. There’s little she can do to help her. Or maybe it’s how she’s made sense of the difficulties in her own life- by taking the meaning she’s made of her own hardships and turning it into the causal reason for why these difficulties were “needed.”
We all do what we can to cope with challenges, to lower our anxiety to a point where we can function (which is why James Hollis’ idea that maturity means increasing our capacity to tolerate anxiety is so challenging.) Compassion can be difficult because being with suffering often does increase our anxiety. It’s not just about being kind, although when we’re compassionate, kindness comes easily. It’s not about rescuing, although certainly being compassionate prompts us to offer what help we can when others are in need and we have something to offer.
Compassion comes from the Latin com- to be with, and passion- suffering. To be compassionate is to be with another’s or our own suffering. To be with suffering, to feel its raw edges, its jagged breathing, its sobbing gulps for air- this is hard. To hold ourselves or another, without words, without explanations or justification. To match our breath to the breath of the one who suffers beside us or within us. To sit close and rock as they rock because the movement soothes. That’s compassion, and that can be difficult, particularly when we love the one who is suffering.
I think of my own sons and how I would feel if they were thousands of miles away in a dangerous situation. And it’s almost too much to be with this woman or the many other mothers and fathers in the world whose sons and daughters are in danger, to allow myself to be touched by their anxiety, to have my anxiety for our children stirred, to understand why this woman might have made a response that sounded harsh to me.
I sit and imagine our hearts breathing together. This meditation does not replace offering practical help where I am able. Practical help can be compassion in action. Still, I think the “being with” helps too. I have faith that this willingness can ease the suffering a little.
Oriah House (c) 2009
Oriah is the author of the international best-selling books: The Invitation, and The Dance, and The Call (published by HarperONE, translated into eighteen languages.) Her much loved poem “The Invitation” has been shared around the world. Trained in a shamanic tradition, her medicine name Mountain Dreamer means one who likes to find and push the edge. Using story, poetry and shamanic ceremony Oriah’s deeply personal writing and her work as a group facilitator and mentor explore how to follow the thread of our heart’s longing into a life where we can choose joy without denying the challenges of a human life. www.oriah.org www.oriahsinvitation.blogspot.com https://www.facebook.com/Oriah.Mountain.Dreamer?sk=wall
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A monk asks, ‘Is there anything more miraculous than the wonders of nature?’ The master replies, ‘Yes, your awareness of the wonders of nature.’ Angelus Silesius
We lived in Dartmouth, Devon, on the south coast of England, and each day we would take walks along the gorgeous river Dart to the estuary. One day we were standing and gazing at the water when it struck us that though the river always looked the same, day after day, it was no more the same as it was even a second ago. It was constantly changing, always moving, always different.