I consider myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I try hard to not react too strongly to anything without giving myself time to let intense emotions pass, and I work hard to put myself in the shoes of other people. If I hear myself making some judgment about another human being, I can often stop myself in my tracks and try to identify what it is that I’m feeling, what might be driving that need to distance myself or put someone in a box.
Unfortunately, my compassion sometimes has limits and what I’ve recently discovered is that they lie pretty close to home. There are a few people in my life that I tend to treat much differently than others and that realization stings. For years, my dad was one of those people, but somehow I was able to move past that and develop a bottomless sense of understanding and love for him. (I wrote a little about the beginning of this process here.)
What I came to understand this morning, as I thought about the folks I have trouble having compassion for, is that they all have something pretty profound in common. They are all people for whom I have felt responsible at one time or another, very, very responsible. It occurred to me (well, actually, hit me in the chest like a punching bag) that my inability to have a pure sense of compassion for them was more likely the result of me not being able to have compassion for myself. Because on some level, I feel as though many of the things they have done that I have trouble with came about because of me, that I am somehow to blame for the way they are, and by distancing myself from these aspects of them, I am really distancing myself from the things I don’t like about what I may have done to them (or prevented them from becoming).
You see, for me, not being able to relate to another person enough to have empathy for them is a direct result of my walling off in order to protect myself. If I can look at someone and judge that they are “Wrong” or that they “deserve” what is happening to them, I am basically telling myself that what they are going through is nothing I will ever have to deal with. I am using my intellect to craft some imaginary world in which I get to be in control of all circumstances and contingencies and determining that this Other Person’s life is so different from my own that I will never have diabetes or a child in prison or a husband who leaves me for another woman. I am not that person.
But in this case, my ultimate fear is that I may have created “that person,” perhaps by not saying enough or by saying too much, by not saying the right things or doing the right things or simply by not being who I Ought To Have Been at some pivotal moment. And of course, none of this means that I don’t dearly, deeply love each of these individuals because they are some of the most beloved people in my life. And, it turns out, I am not actually struggling with having compassion for them at all. I am simply struggling with the idea that they are individuals that don’t belong to me in any way, shape, or form. Once I can begin to see them as human beings whose actions and beliefs are their own, whose lives do not reflect on my self-worth, I will be free to offer them as much compassion as I do anyone else. And then the work can begin wherein I turn it back on to myself.