Photo by metro thom
Lately, it seems like every life lesson that comes pummeling my way is on a mission to teach me about compassion.
And you know what? Compassion might be nice, but these lessons are NOT fun.
That’s because it turns out you can’t learn about compassion when life is good—when you’re writing brilliant blog posts four times a week and literary agents are knocking on your door; when you’re able to complete a knitting project without having to tear out a single row; when every major appliance and system in your house is working properly; when all of your kids are happy and getting As and keeping no secrets from you; when your marriage emanates so much fun and passion that all your friends are jealous.
No, you don’t learn about compassion when your life is cooperating in every way.
The most effective curriculum for learning compassion is drawn from moments like these: watching your daughter’s volleyball team lose a set 1-25, or watching your husband struggle for hours to fix the garage door opener, without success.
You learn about compassion when you’re feeling sorry for yourself because of a sinus infection or backache, then you sit next to a homeless woman at the lunch after church, or you get an email from a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer, and she shares with you how frightened she is—not just for herself, but for her husband and sons, and her parents.
The lessons come at you hard and fast when your child feels a deep sense of pain she can’t point to, and you can’t tend to. When the mistakes of your past keep showing up in your present. When you need someone to talk to about difficult things, but you can’t begin to think of who that might be.
Then there’s that moment when you first catch a glimpse of what “survival mode” feels like—when ideals like “going above and beyond” and “thinking ahead” aren’t options because you’re just taking life a few hours at a time, hoping to get to the next day. And that feeling often carries with it guilt, because you don’t have the emotional energy to be engaged and present for anyone else right now. The guilt turns into a prayer that those around you will respond to your current status with grace, even if they aren’t aware of all that’s going on in your life.
Yeah, I know this whole theme is a downer. I suspect that’s why we tend to do everything we can to avoid exercising and growing our sense of compassion. Because developing those muscles hurts. The process involves looking at what’s going wrong in our own lives and admitting, “This sucks—and it could have gone differently, it could have gone better.” It involves getting angry at God and asking “Why?” but not getting any answers. It involves looking straight into the eyes of others who are experiencing difficult things, and recognizing the pain and disappointment they feel—even absorbing some of it into ourselves when we’d rather avert our eyes and go through the day as if we didn’t see anything.
These last couple of months have left me feeling spent, but I’m trying to be OK with that. Because I’m definitely more compassionate than I was before, and if there’s one thing I believe this world needs, it’s compassion. If nothing else, let’s not avoid the experiences that help us learn and practice it more.