What does compassion look like?
Stumbled on this quote searching the internets the other day:
“Compassion is knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others.” Pema Chodron.
I love everything about this, and there’s two elements here that are key to being a fully rounded person.
The first is the functional role that compassion serves. Note that they’re not saying that compassion is saying the right thing, or sending the right flowers, or making things better in any way, shape or form.
Compassion is an act of sitting.
Generally we find other people’s suffering intensely uncomfortable. We want to ‘fix’ it.
But that’s a pretty selfish approach. “I want to fix your pain so you stop making me feel uncomfortable.”
Or we want to fix their pain to make ourselves feel important. “Here you go. I lightened your burden. You’re welcome.”
Again, pretty selfish.
And it’s uncomfortable because it holds a mirror up to our own suffering – to all the things we’ve been hiding from ourselves.
Our need to ‘fix’ people is often a desire to smash that mirror, so we don’t have to reflect on our own inner sadnesses.
“Have you tried running away from your emotional distress. That works for me.”
And of course, when you’re in the midst of grief or emotional turmoil, all these platitudes are totally unhelpful. “Time heals all wounds.” “ Nevermind, get em next time.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
And in that moment of being ripped raw, you are intensely sensitive to the emotional places that people are coming from.
And so when someone runs into the room with a fire blanket looking to smother your suffering, it can be a traumatic experience.
We even feel compelled to downplay our suffering to make others feel better. “It’s ok, tomorrow’s a new day.” “I think I’m getting over it.” “Everything has a meaning.”
Talk a bout a ridiculous situation – having to comfort others in their discomfort in the middle of your grief. Oh boy.
You can not take some one’s pain away. You can not even really ‘know’ it. The best that you can do is be with them, sit with them, so their grief finds some solace in companionship.
But how do we learn to ‘sit’ with others in their suffering?
As Chodron says,
“the key is having already made peace with your own darknesses.”
If you’ve spent your whole life running from the dark, from your own hurts and tragedies, the best that you can offer someone is a running partner.
The best you can offer is a lesson in how to try and escape your true feeling. “Let’s run this way. There’s lots of distractions over here. Have you tried Candy Crush Saga?”
Not much help there.
But if you have learnt to sit with your own pain – if you have found the courage to turn and face your own history, then you are able to offer that example to others.
I often think this is the point of lullabies. It’s not so much about making some lovely sounds that distract the child from whatever is afflicting them. It’s about giving them an example, of someone sitting with their pain, and weaving into some sort of beauty. It’s why lullabies often have a melancholy tone to them.
(“Down will come baby cradle and all.”)
In that way, they offer a lived example of sitting and being with your pain, so the listener doesn’t feel so alone with theirs.
All in all, it’s a specific case of a general principle. If you want to help others, if you want to bring everything you can into the world, you need to do the inner work first.
Just no two ways about it.