Over the last six weeks, I have heard this many times: “Our grandparents had to go to war to serve their country. We just have to sit on the couch to serve ours.” It is intended to be inspiring, I think. “We can do this, it’s not so hard!”
The implication is that it was harder to go to war than it is to remain at home. This is completely true. The ways in which war destroys communities, families, and our social fabric are innumerable, unfathomable, immeasurable always.
It goes without saying that World War II was harder than it is to be in our own homes. Bombs were dropped upon people’s homes in the middle of the night for days on end. Families were separated. Food was severely rationed. People had to tape their windows so that the glass wouldn’t shatter if there was a bomb dropped nearby. They had to paint windows with black paint and cover them with thick fabric to block every fragment of light.
We live in a world that contains war, genocide, human trafficking, mass incarceration, and gun violence. There are myriad ways human beings suffer “more” than we are suffering now.
It also goes without saying that our community heroes, the nurses, doctors, emergency responders, and essential workers, are sacrificing more, are in a uniquely dangerous position, and are the ones who are truly serving our world. We see how their protective equipment has rubbed parts of their faces raw. We witness their fatigue, their trauma, their grief. It is all heartbreaking.
Yet, comparative suffering does not heal anything. It minimizes one kind of pain to elevate another intangible, abstract, and elusive kind of pain. We fill the gap between the two with our imagination and our shame.
Our pain is our bridge to understanding the pain within others. Empathy is sitting with someone in the pain of their own existence even if that pain is not a mirror image of our own. In order to join another there, though, we have to be awake to our pain. Compassionate means “to suffer with.” Compassionate, empathetic people are those who have not dissociated from the suffering of other people…which means that they have not dissociated from their own suffering and pain – a huge part of being human.
You can attend to your own heart without oppressing other people. You can hold within your mind two non-competing thoughts simultaneously. It hurts here, and it hurts there, without saying, “You know what, war is actually easier than social distancing? I’d rather go to war!” Or, in another way, “This is the hardest thing any human being has ever had to do. What do those nurses have to complain about?”
Self-compassion is not complaining about not getting the right brand of peanut butter, et cetera. Self-compassion is having grace with oneself, which serves the world in its own way. Compassion is not self-absorption. Compassion begets compassion.
I heard Richard Rohr say something like this: in order to dehumanize others, to ignore the suffering of others, we have to dissociate. In other words, not being tapped into the suffering of children separated from their parents at the border, of homeless people, of women sold into sex slavery, you have to disconnect yourself from their pain. You have to split yourself into two and walk around as less than a full human being to function in a dehumanizing world. The reunification of these halves requires greater consciousness, purer awareness, and deeper compassion.
During this strange and tumultuous time, we are starting to think and respond to the pain of the other living beings we’ve largely been ignoring.
Restaurants are donating meals to lower income families. Churches are opening their doors so that homeless people can have access to shelter, heat, food, and a hot shower. Families are fostering animals. Neighbors are making meals for each other, going grocery shopping for each other, checking in with each other – these connections forming between people who did not even know each others’ names two months ago.
And the earth? We all know the stories of seemingly miraculous change. The rivers are clearer, the air is cleaner, the birds have returned.
These shifts represent shifts in our collective consciousness. By slowing down, by witnessing the suffering brought on by the virus, we have remembered what makes us human. And, I believe, we are more sensitized now to other people’s, other being’s suffering. And to become more sensitized in the midst of global chaos, while not being allowed to leave your home? That is incredibly difficult… and dissonant.
This is the kind of interior work monks, nuns, and contemplatives choose. To sit in a confined space for hours, weeks, years on end, contemplating the suffering of the world, while trying to make oneself more virtuous. For the majority of human history, most people have not chosen to be contemplatives… because it’s no walk in the park. It is arduous work, work of the mind, spirit, and heart.
I find that I am crying more, lately, in response to the beauty and cruelty of the world. When we become more sensitive, we become more sensitized to both joy and pain. Unfortunately, we cannot choose to respond to just one because what recognizes beauty, truth, wisdom, love, grace within us is the very same part of us that recognizes the lack of it.
We may feel guilt, or sadness, or despair quite often in this season of quarantining. I certainly am. Without tangible actions to distract ourselves, beyond washing our hands or sterilizing doorknobs, feeling one’s feelings will seem inadequate because it does not solve anything.
If you can donate to your food bank, or make cloth masks for your neighbors, or buy a little extra food for someone in need, or help a family member carry the loads they’re carrying, that is wonderful. That is such important work as well.
But on the days when even all of that feels like it falls short of making the world more beautiful… remember that the work of feeling and sitting still in the midst of chaos is the work of wisdom. All that you are doing now to become more compassionate will serve the world.
We cannot see the light at the end of all of this, but there will come a time when the question will be not, what can I do today, but what can we do to make the world a more equitable, just, beautiful place? Full of grace for yourself and for others, with your heart reaching forward, you will have an answer that will make the world new.