It’s been a while since I’ve written and there’s a partially valid reason for that. I say partially, because I don’t want to make excuses for myself, but I was honestly not in the mood to write for the last couple of months because I was feeling quite ill. Nothing to be concerned about…on the contrary in fact; I’m expecting baby #2! I spent a little over 10 weeks feeling too ill to do much of anything. Nausea, migraines, fatigue and lack of sleep (I was tired but couldn’t sleep because of being ill) took over and the bitterly cold Toronto weather and grey skies reinforced my physical, emotional and mental state. As I lay in bed awake, nauseous and weak night after night, and as I forced my body to keep up with my beautiful little toddler throughout the day, I felt generally lack lustre and low, separate from the inner ‘me’ that I knew. Despite knowing that the cause of all this illness was positive, I found it hard to feel upbeat, as I could only focus on my immediate needs and had to continually push through the challenges of my physical state each hour at a time. To put it eloquently, I just felt completely BLAH.
During this time however, I gained some good perspective. For one, I gained a small window of perspective into what it may be like for some people who must focus on their immediate physical needs above all else. I can never know what they actually feel and I know that what I went through is minute compared to what others go through, but that little bit of perspective was a gain from where I stood before: in a position of privilege whereby I rarely had to think much about pain on a daily or hourly basis. Secondly, through my personal experience, I was able to really internalize and consolidate some reflections I had been mulling over the past few years on the topics of empathy, compassion, mindfulness and human connection. While I was feeling ill, I longed for social support of a certain kind–caring compassion–and it gave me a more intrinsic perspective as to how compassion may be extremely helpful in connecting to other people, things and situations that are challenging. I’d like to share my reflections on 3 aspects of compassion that I have now come to understand.
A few resources and prior experiences over the last several years have played a part in concretizing my current reflections the topic. If you have a chance to check out some of these sources, I highly recommend them. I started thinking more about the topic of compassion a few years back when I was seeking more mindfulness in my life and read the book ‘How to be Compassionate–A handbook for Creating Inner Peace and a Happier World’ by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Subsequently I came across writings from Thich Nhat Hanh and Byron Katie, which beautifully wove together the topics of mindfulness through compassion and vice versa. This was a nice complement to my teaching practice, where I focus on teaching character development and specifically, teaching the character trait of empathy to my students–one of the character traits of focus for the ‘Character Matters’ initiative with my school board. After having my son, I also became more familiar with the program Roots of Empathy, which does a great job of tying in empathy to real and relatable experiences from a core human needs level. As I’ve been learning more about critical equity and evidence-based social justice I have also seen the topic of compassion woven through (whether explicitly or implicitly) even the more scientifically-based literature. More recently, my genius colleague Royan Lee wrote about Paul Bloom’s views on compassion versus empathy, which really helped me start to compare and contrast what I had been learning across the equity, educational and mindfulness spheres. Finally, in a recent course I took, I watched this video, which also offered some interesting points about connecting to others. Had it not been for all these prior learning experiences, I don’t think my most recent personal experience of feeling utterly BLAH, would have been as insightful as it was for me.
Before getting into my 3 key reflections, I should mention that when I was feeling unwell, my husband and parents were absolutely incredible. They played a huge role in taking care of our almost 2 year old son and in keeping up with day to day tasks. Their love through service and otherwise was such a blessing (I use that word not in any religious sense but more as an expression of utter gratefulness for how lucky I am to have won the lottery on such an amazing husband and wonderful parents) and I appreciated and continue to appreciate all that they do. My son was also such a light during this time (and all the time!). His innocent glee was a warm welcome, despite how tired I may have been.
Reflection #1: Basic human compassion can help connect us to others better than empathy.
As I mentioned earlier, when I was feeling low, I longed for a connection of compassion with other friends and mothers from my extended social community. A phone call checking in to see how I was doing, a listening ear and some type of validation for what I was going through. If another mother had gone through the same thing and was able to relate with empathy, then that was a bonus, but mostly, I just needed a compassionate, caring ear. A voice or presence communicating the message (whether literally or inferably) “I get that you are feeling BLAH and I’m sorry you are going through this.” Or, “That sounds unpleasant. I know you’ll push through, as you are a strong person. How about I come by with a cupcake tomorrow?” I realized through these feelings that perhaps compassion is indeed more helpful than empathy. Empathy is about putting oneself in other people’s shoes to understand how they feel. However, this is not always realistically attainable when people’s experiences may vary greatly from our own frame of reference. For example, as much as I try, I can never come close to understanding what it may be like for a human being living in a war-torn country, fearing bombs, insecurity and destruction on a regular basis. I do however feel a great deal of compassion for these people–a deep aching in my heart and a longing in my eyes, that demonstrates a genuine sense of caring for the well being of these people, regardless of our different circumstances. Even though I may not be able to put myself in their shoes, I can connect to them through compassion; through basic human caring. I see compassion as a genuine, raw caring for the well-being of all living things (humans, animals, the environment) that can happen between anyone or anything, as long as we open our hearts and humbly connect ourselves with the vulnerability and unity of all things that make up our existence–other human beings, animals, the Earth, the Universe, the unknown. It makes understanding or knowing less relevant because we need not understand exactly what someone else is going through or what causes a certain circumstance, to care, love and feel. If we try and understand and come closer to that, then that’s a bonus, but I cautiously warn that if we assume we are understanding using an egocentric lens and form our connection based on such assumptions we may actually create more of a distance and do more harm than good. In other words, if I assume I know what someone else is going through and my assumption is incorrect, I may make the other person feel more alone, more misunderstood, perhaps even more frustrated. In some cases, instead of allowing this person to just be who they are and feel how they feel and validating this through a common lens of basic caring, they may feel the need to justify or explain themselves, which may place a greater burden on them. Thus, overall, raw compassion seems to be a great connector and striving for understanding can be useful if done so with an open mind.
Reflection #2: Part of demonstrating compassion is validating the reality of what someone else is going through.
Another element of connecting through compassion is validation. When I was feeling unwell, I felt happier when I knew someone ‘okayed’ my feelings. When they listened and implied that I had a right to feel BLAH. Validation happened when people honoured who I was in that moment in time (“That sounds pretty sucky. I’m sorry.”) instead of trying to change my reality (“Just pick yourself up and don’t think about it so much”). I definitely appreciate the good intentions behind people trying to help through advice, but advice isn’t necessarily a good connector when it is not desired or needed by the person on the other end. In my experience, I feel that people will ask for advice when they want it, and when they don’t ask for advice but simply share their challenging experiences, validating their feelings by acknowledging their reality and meeting it with acceptance and compassion can be extremely helpful for both people involved in the interaction.
Reflection #3: Offering a silver lining or a relative perspective is not part of compassion.
Finally, the last thing I learned through all this is that offering a ‘silver lining’ (“Well, look on the bright side…”) as this video describes, or a ‘relative perspective’ (“it’s a first world problem and it’s not as bad as…”) as I have been guilty of giving, is not a form of compassion and is not very effective in connecting with the person reaching out, especially when it is done in the absence of points #1 and #2 (heartfelt compassion and validation). In fact, the silver lining and perspective approach seems to have worked in direct opposition to the validation I was needing when I reached out to others. When I was in the thick of feeling emotionally, mentally and physically BLAH, I received such (well intentioned) silver lining/relative perspective comments, that actually left me feeling less validated and more guilty of feeling what I was feeling: “Well, you’ll forget about it soon enough!” or “It’s a blessing to be pregnant…think of all those who can’t have kids.” Truth be told, some of these comments came from others but they also came from me. I realized that silver lining and perspective can definitely be useful as motivators when given after radical compassion and validation is offered. When I was feeling cared for and supported, I then felt more open and empowered to think beyond my current state.
Now that I am feeling better, I look back and sometimes feel that I was pretty wimpy (for lack of a better word) throughout my illness and wished I had demonstrated more ‘Superwoman’ inner and outer strength, especially considering the relative perspective I do have regarding what other women go through in this world. But, I also realize that providing unconditional compassion to myself is incredibly important because it can not only help me feel OK with whatever my reality is in a certain moment, but help me be all the more compassionate towards my family, peers, students and children as well.