I’ve been reading a book, titled “Caring”, in the past few months. And as might be expected it has a lot to say about ‘compassion’. ‘Caring’ could be thought of as a synonym for ‘compassion” but it’s a less intimidating word; less likely to invoke the thought: “I’ve got way too many problems of my own right now to take on the woes of the world.”
Interestingly, the first half of this book is about caring for ourselves. There are at least two reasons for that: as wet-behind-the-ears interns of caring our most challenging patient will always be ourselves, as we swim in the midst of our own limitations, trying to be so careful and caring. Also, until we are blind-sided with guilt and regret, we are probably busy suppressing any glimpse of our shortfalls with some story line—in my case often that I was only trying to do my best. Unfortunately the effort required to maintain a tolerable image of myself can be so exhausting that I then don’t have much energy left over to care for anyone else.
What do we do when someone close to us blames us or dismisses the importance of something that is important to us? If you’re like me, you probably feel angry and hurt. I seem to be most vulnerable when I secretly realize that the behavior that is being critiqued really is my way of trying to protect something fragile in myself. A flag that flies over such situations is that I’m feeling a sense of outrage and unfairness. “Don’t they know how hard I work? Don’t they know that they are the one who has this issue more than I do?”
It may even be the case they our protests are factually accurate, as far as they go. But what a toll to have to pay–constantly maintaining our sense that we are right, misjudged, and insufficiently appreciated. It’s like having to fill an empty swimming pool when all we really want is a cup of water. Then, if we notice that someone else is thirsty, we may have worked so hard for our own cup of water that we tell ourselves: “I’ve already filled that swimming pool. I can’t do that again.”
Maintaining these illusions about ourselves weighs us down. And if we notice how futile this defense of our self-image really is, we’ll realize we need to throw some dead weight overboard if we are ever to ride higher through the waves of life.
If we can be kinder to ourselves then we are more likely to notice that others are dealing with similar issues; and we already know what that feels like. Realizing that even a nod of recognition can help anyone feel less alone, we won’t be so afraid of being overwhelmed if we get involved.
Here’s another wrinkle. When stress is washing through our world, others in our circle may lash out at us, and then we’ll find it hard to be caring. What do we do then? Perhaps a starting point, which may be all we can do in the heat of any particular day, is to recognize that we are not as evolved as we would like to be; and if we were not so loaded down with our vanities, then perhaps we could be that evolving person.
It is so easy to treat life as not all that valuable: just a state of being that is at least as much trouble as any reward it gives back. But I need to remember that what awaits me is death and that all I know on this side of that inevitable death is here right now. So why don’t I give life a try? Judging by how I feel whenever I manage to pay attention and don’t feel so tied down by the encrustations that I usually drag around with me—like the chains that Marley, the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s partner, drags across the floor—life is well worth exploring, while I have the chance.
Living with awareness of death may be the surest way to value life. The sound of thunder—as a rising wind blows in from a dark horizon–can inspire us to notice the poplar leaves spinning wildly overhead. I remember, from other times in my life when I lived outside the city, how cows all move closer to one another at the edge of a field when they sense a storm approaching.
And now, as I seek shelter from the storm clouds of thought which threaten to invade my piece of mind, I can remind myself that as long as I am here, and perhaps even after I have departed from here, such awareness is a precious gift.
I do not have to bury myself in a self-criticism that is ultimately a rejection of the life I have been given. Learning to be kind to myself may well be the surest road to being a support for others—at least for those who are still alive and still share this world with me.