(Courtesy of Ian Lawton)
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.
The time that I had to hold my two year old son down while doctors performed a lumbar puncture is seared on my brain. 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. 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 this week. Locally we had a mass shooting last night that had no obvious explanation or motive; just a man terrorising a city. People everywhere are mourning the death of babies, the loss of lovers, the end of dreams, and the inability of world systems to solve the largest human dilemas. 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.
What wisdom do you draw from your tough times? What flood of emotions do you feel about friends and family caught in crisis? What wisdom will we all draw from senseless death? 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 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.