Compassion in Life’s Crucible

January 12th, 2011

Love prevails despite overwhelming evidence – thorns have roses, tears have heart and trauma has strength. Like the earth from which you emerge, and the Love that sources your life, you have incredible resilience to get back up after a setback, dust yourself off and keep moving forward with grace. In time you find that there is wisdom in wounds, perspective in pain and growth in grief. As much as you want to run, learn to stay with the pain. It is preparing you for a life of depth and compassion. Stand fearlessly in the flames of suffering with an open heart and a strong will.

The crucible of your life experience has fused you into the capable and compassionate person you are. This can’t happen without a few cracks and scars. The only people who get through life unscathed are those more interested in self preservation than genuine connection. You carry your burn marks as a reminder that you have stood in the middle of suffering, your own and others, without shrinking back or hiding the pain.

I will never forget the time I had to hold my two year old son down while doctors performed a lumbar puncture. He looked at me with such betrayal. It broke my heart to hear him scream, but hurt even more to see his confusion that the people he thought he could trust most in the world were in this moment his torturers. They might as well have stuck that needle in my spine and twisted it the way I felt that day. Many parents know the agony of watching children suffer and being unable to remove the pain. It’s a universal experience, at least for anyone who dares to get close enough to another to care.

Compassion is not just a platitude. It’s a bodily experience. The ancient Greek word for compassion was “splagchnos” which was also the word used for bowels or intestines. This was the word that Bible writers used to describe the compassion Jesus had for those who were suffering. Splagchnos means what it sounds like it means. It’s a guttural word that indicates a visceral reaction. The bowels were regarded by the Greeks as the site of primal passion, while for the Hebrews they were the site of more tender affections, like kindness. Compassion has many faces and modes. Compassion is a bodily reaction that leads to a deep desire to alleviate suffering. It isn’t a surface response, like “isn’t that awful”. It is a passionate sense of being burdened by suffering and wanting it to end.

Science reinforces the physical basis of compassion with an understanding of mirror neurons. Neurons fire in your brain when you perform actions. Mirror neurons fire when you see someone else perform an action, giving your brain the sense that you are performing the same action. Mirror neurons explain why you smile at someone who smiles at you, or yawn when someone yawns. Mirror neurons explain why kids pick up the same mannerisms that they have spent years mocking their parents about. And most importantly, mirror neurons explain empathy. When someone is suffering, it’s more than metaphor to say “I feel your pain.”

Many people are feeling this bodily compassion for the victims of the horrific assassination attempt and fatal shootings in Tucson, and the victims of flooding in Australia and so many other global tragedies. Its also the anniversary of the massive earthquake that tore Haiti apart. It’s one of those times when there doesn’t seem to be enough room in the world to hold all the pain. And yet the space in our collective heart is larger than any pain.

The group who will create a guard of love and protection around the Tucson funerals this week to ward off the hatred of protestors will be dressed as angels with white wings. This is compassion dressed in white and expressed in a bodily way. The stories coming out of Australia of young children drowning to save their siblings is compassion in action. Compassion has to be expressed in some form or other, or else it slips back into being a platitude.

What wisdom do you draw from your tough times? What flood of emotions do you feel about friends and family in Australia? What wisdom will we all draw from the Tucson shootings? What growth will emerge from the grief?

Begin with tears. Eyes shed tears to find focus. Tragedies remind us all to recommit to our highest values. Beyond all the speculation and political finger pointing, pause in compassion for innocent victims of violence and confused perpetrators of violence. Feel the pain, then let this felt pain turn into compassionate action. When you hold this compassionate space, everyone and everything becomes a mirror, reflecting a universal love that holds all pain and all joy in absolute and unconditional embrace.

May all people dwell in peace and loving kindness, beginning with me, beginning NOW. My heart is open. It’s been bruised, burned and broken. But it’s still beating and has greater capacity for love than any amount of pain or hatred.

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  1. Margaret says:

    This is beautifully written Ian, with passion and wisdom. Thank you and Namasre

  2. Myriam says:

    How genuinely beautiful, touching, and inspiring your words ring.  Thank you for sharing your gift of understanding and  expressing facets of the human condition with others.

  3. Joan and Charles says:

    You have plumbed the depths of shared pain here, Ian, and the rich love that follows such sharing…very hard to describe.  You succeeded.

  4. Sandra says:

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom about the connections between compassion and suffering.

  5. Charlotte says:

    Beautifully expressed wisdom & insight. God bless you for sharing.

  6. Manuel says:

    very inspiring…thank you so much…many blessings to you!

  7. Anna says:

    There are so many ways to facilitate healing.
    Your use of  heartfelt words is one of  them. Great website… great messages.