Compassion Starts with Embracing our own Pain

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” – Henri Nouwen

The meaning of the word compassion is literally ‘co-suffering’ or ‘to suffer together’. Compassion is not simply a feeling that comes and then passes like sympathy or pity. Having compassion is being so deeply moved in your heart with the pain of another that you are compelled to act to somehow alleviate that suffering.

We are literally ‘joining together’ with the one suffering to help and support them.

It’s actually a deeply painful emotion. But the intense feeling is not focused on ourselves – it focuses on ‘the other’ who is suffering in some way. This means, although painful, it is a deeply beautiful and even freeing emotion. Because it takes the focus off our own challenges, trials and pain and focuses our attention on supporting and helping someone else.

However, the irony of compassion is that we only truly feel it, and are moved by it, once we have first embraced our own life struggles and pain. Until we recognise the pain that suffering brings to us, we cannot truly begin to understand the pain it brings to others.

This is why some of the most compassionate people you will come across are those who have felt a similar pain to yours. It may not have been exactly the same, but they at least experienced it enough to see it and feel it in you.

Suffering together copy

Compassion is linked to empathy. Empathy enables us to understand and relate to what someone else is feeling. Compassion then takes empathy a step further, in that those empathetic feelings are intensified into a passion that leads to action. We are deeply moved to act! To do something to alleviate the person’s suffering. That act might be seemingly big or small, but it will be something that we actually do practically to help them. Motivated by the hope that it will help alleviate that persons suffering – even if only a little.

I really do love the quote at the top by Henri Nouwen. I believe the last sentence is particularly poignant:

“Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

What does he mean by this, what is the ‘condition of being human’? 

To me one of the most striking characteristics of our humanity is our brokenness. It’s the fact that we are all born as vulnerable, weak and dependant babies. And we will also all die vulnerable and weak from sickness, an accident or old age. Our human body has a fragility and mortality about it which means that we are plagued by weakness in different ways. We have many vulnerabilities; physically, mentally and emotionally. We are all prone to seasons of suffering and struggle. We are also all imperfect, we all make mistakes.

There are no humans who truly make it through their whole lives feeling perpetually strong, having it ‘all together’ the whole time, without any obvious weakness, vulnerability or struggle. Some people might like to project that mirage to others but the reality is we are all imperfect and fragile in similar and different ways. The fact is, our common humanity dictates that – if we do live to old age – all this will become more than evident, as eventually our body and mind fade and stop working altogether. If we do not live that long then death perhaps will ‘take us out’ early, again brutally revealing our weakness and mortality.

It’s this understanding of our ‘common humanity’ that helps us to become more loving, empathetic and compassionate people. This is why it is actually in times of trial and suffering that our deepest bonds with other humans can be formed – through mutual understanding, love and compassion. This is because it’s often only as we come brutally face to face with our own personal weakness and vulnerability that we can potentially connect more wholeheartedly with others because of it.

“The strongest relationships are formed in the heat of difficulty and the confession of weakness… honesty breads more honesty… it’s about sharing our common humanity.” Patrick Regan

Those we can share our whole lives with – our struggles, pain, vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shame and guilt – are those who we generally form the strongest bonds with. Relational safety comes in someone knowing our weakness and failings – but loving and staying loyal to us anyway. This is always when our connection with others becomes more deeply profound.

This is when love is most beautiful and its bonds become most powerful.

It is only when someone sees the depths of your own ‘darkness’ – but chooses to love you regardless – that the true beauty of deep relational connection blossoms. There is perhaps nothing more deeply moving in life than this. This is where true unconditional love abounds.

This is also the place that our sense of compassion is potentially deepened, because we have arrived at a place where we know what it is to be faced with our own darkness, vulnerability, suffering and shame. Our hearts can potentially become softer and more malleable towards others. We have been humbled by the distressing awareness of our weakness, which can make us kinder and more understanding to other’s weaknesses.

However, you will see that I used the word ‘potentially’ in that last paragraph twice! The truth is, not everyone who suffers will show increasing compassion to others. This is because suffering can go two ways: it can cause us to become more self consumed, hardhearted, angry and bitter OR it can help us become more tender, understanding, compassionate and loving.

Ironically, embracing our own weakness and pain in seasons of suffering – but then turning those feelings outward to focus it on having compassion for otherscan actually help alleviate the suffering of both of us. Suffering always grows darker the more it pulls us back into ourselves. Compassion, instead, provides a light for the both the giver and receiver – as the giver directs their own pain into helping alleviate the pain of someone else.

Acting to alleviate another’s suffering helps bring more meaning and purpose to our own.

Compassion

In reality though: in what ways can we practically act compassionately? Especially when in so many situations what we can actually do is so restricted?

The thing is, compassion doesn’t demand that we fully fix another’s difficult situation. For instance, when I was immensely suffering from an acute spinal fluid leak in recent years – I couldn’t reach out to another, who was also leaking, and fix their main physical problem. As much as I would have liked to have done so, we were both somewhat at the mercy of a debilitating and misunderstood condition. We couldn’t actually ‘fix’ it ourselves – we needed compassionate doctors to help. However, there are so many ways I could respond to and share another’s pain and act with compassion to their suffering.

Just telling another that we ‘get it’ and understand their pain can be an act of compassion. Which is one of the reasons I decided to write so honestly in this blog. If we can humbly ‘get over’ our own fears and insecurities of ‘getting real’ about our struggles, we can then choose to act compassionately by connecting and reaching out to another honestly – amidst our own, and their, pain. We can’t just think about it – that is sympathy or empathy. Compassion calls us to act on those feelings and practically connect to encourage, support and hopefully help alleviate some of the potential loneliness of suffering. Simply hearing ‘I get it’ means a lot to someone really struggling. This is often the first step in acting compassionately.

Giving your time to support someone struggling through spending time with them in person, over the phone or digitally can be an important act of compassion. Often patiently listening to them process their struggle and trying to understand their pain can help them immensely. Or simply looking for ways to encourage or uplift them in an empathetic way by sending some kind words, a card or gift. Practically, if we do live near by we might show compassion by cooking a meal, taking their kids to school or on a day out, or offering to drive them to a hospital appointment.

Little acts of compassion can speak the loudest when someone is struggling to make it through the next hour, let alone the next day. It was often the things above that spoke the loudest to me at the darkest moments of my own journey with a debilitating long term illness.

“Do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

Compassion doesn’t always require us to do something BIG! In fact, normally we can’t do something big – even if we had more time and resources. Many situations cannot be changed overnight with one action. There is a long and arduous process involved in acceptance, change and potential recovery. Compassion is often most profoundly shared in the little acts. The little things that shows someone in pain that you understand (or are trying to) and that you care.

However…

We need to keep in mind that the first step to being ‘moved with compassion’ – in choosing to ‘co-suffer’ with another – is that genuine compassion requires us to SEE and feel that person’s pain and struggle first. Before we do or say anything! That way, our words and actions will pour out from that heartfelt overflow of empathy. They will then be more obviously genuine and tender. You can’t fake compassion – it is easy to see in someone’s eyes, words and body language whether their supposedly compassionate words and actions are truly real or simply forced. In my own experience this can often be a problem for members of the medical profession, especially those who have lost that connection with their and their patients ‘common humanity’. 

Genuine compassion will only flow out of our true hearts, when we have first seen, felt and embraced our own pain, vulnerability and weakness. If we have not done that effectively, if we insist on denying and attempting to cover over our own human brokenness, we will simply become increasingly self focused and self absorbed human beings who spend their time pridefully keeping up their mirage of strength and pretension at other’s expense. This will inevitably end up with those people getting increasingly frustrated with others or even despising other’s suffering – rather than being moved with compassion by it.

Is it not time to see more compassion in our world? Whether it’s loving the poverty stricken orphan in Ethiopia through child sponsorship, or simply actively listening to or taking a meal round for a friend or neighbour who is struggling. Can you imagine if our neighbourhoods, schools, hospitals and workplaces were full of truly compassionate people who knew personal pain, but could look past it, to recognise it in another. We could then support one another through the ups and downs of life without judgment, misunderstanding or ignorance.

Perhaps, if we embraced our own pain more, tried to understand it, then turned it outward to connect with another equal human – then we would all suffer a little less throughout our own unique life journeys. Compassion rarely makes all the pain go away. But all of our collective small acts of compassion can become another necessary cog in the bigger wheel of changing our world for the better – person, by person.

“Love your neighbour as yourself.” – The Bible (Mark 12:31)

So let us not forget that we are ALL the same. We all share a common humanity. We must try to love as we would want to be loved. Try to care, as we would like to be cared for. Try to understand, as we would want to be understood. Try to show the compassion that we would like to receive.

In the hope that little by little, kind word by kind word, small act by small act, we might help alleviate some more of the suffering and pain in this world – TOGETHER!

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” – Henri Nouwen

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