“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Compassion is widely recognized as an important emotion in the human experience. These past few months, which some would describe as the longest months of their lives, the human family has “lived” compassion which literally means, “to suffer together.”
What will we take from this?
How will it shape us?
Quiet friend who has come so far
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell.
As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like,
such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth:
To the rushing water, speak:
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 29
The world as we knew it changed overnight. In response to a worldwide pandemic, our way of being in the world came to an abrupt halt. As folks moved toward action, some began strategic planning; others reacted in panic, rushing to retail and online stores, buying up any and all hand sanitizers and toilet paper; and some fell into denial claiming none of this was true. We sheltered at home with our families to protect our own.
Later, when videos of quarantined families in Italy crossed our screens, we saw neighbors singing to neighbors from their balconies, trying to make the best of staying safe.
We saw videos from China showing solidarity by giving the Italians “resist” signs with fists and telling them to hold strong.
Videos such as these acted as a catalyst for a growing sense of compassion that went viral.
Are we born with an ability to feel compassion? Research proves that we are “wired to care” — our neural networks are hard-wired with an ability to share the experiences of others, including emotions and sensations. Ever watch someone get a tooth pulled?
It is true that we are hard-wired for empathy and compassion, and it is also true that these skills are learned throughout the experiences of our lives. Thus, the level of expertise in humans varies dramatically. With our new normal being empty shelves as we shopped for toilet paper, varying levels of coping and not coping showed up in our news feeds. Based on the complex pieces that come together to make a healthy human, and the many things in life that can short circuit that balance, most likely everyone was doing the best they could under the circumstances.
How is it possible to list the many ways that humans wore the cloak of Compassion during Covid-19? It can never be fully known. But here are a few examples:
- This story from This American Life hit me deeply in the compassion nerve early in the pandemic when things were mostly about China. Alert for the tender-hearted: there are so many layers of compassion in this story. You may want to bring your kleenex to listen to Mr. Chen Goes to Wuhan. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/695/everyones-a-critic/act-two-10
- Just one of many, this video thanking the Health Care Professionals gives a glimpse of what they are sacrificing—the community’s compassionate response is gratitude. Beautiful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rtuEgAHWw0
- A lovely story about compassion moving the heart of a neighbor to worry about and try to help a stranger, by writer, Abigail Carter, author of The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow’s Transformation https://www.seattlemag.com/city-life/stories-seattle-house-mossy-roof
- Making it real. Got my own TINY taste of what Covid-19 has taken abruptly from people’s lives. My husband required a visit to our local ER for problems with his heart. I drove to the Emergency entrance, dropped him off, and after parking the car I went back to the ER and was told, “Ma’am, your husband is not allowed to have visitors.” I replied, “Um…I don’t want to visit him…I want to support and advocate for him.” No luck. No one allowed. Dan was in the hospital for 2-days and I could not be with him other than to drop him off and then pick him up at the door. This story had a happy ending; it was just a glimpse of what many others have suffered, but it helped me to think of others (in much worse circumstances) and to feel compassion for their loss during Covid-19.
The poem at the beginning of this blog spoke deeply to me in my darker moments during the pandemic. Today it speaks to me about compassion.
Borrowing from the words of the renown poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, here are a few things to add to our basket of compassion–to keep and carry with us long after Covid-19 is a distant memory:
- Listen . . . feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
- To listen deeply is to build compassion in yourself for the one who is speaking.
- Let this darkness be a bell tower and you the bell.
- Imagine if we see difficult times as our bell tower–we have agency to respond to what comes, rather than just react.
- As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.
- Everything we overcome in life is our teacher for that which comes another day–engendering strength.
- Move back and forth into the change.
- Flexibility allows a young tree branch to bend in the storm; be like the tree, moving back and forth into the change.
- What is it like, such intensity of pain?
- This is the heart of compassion; to feel and therefore know how to feel with another.
- If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
- That we can transform the negative into elegant beauty; this is a deep truth about being human.
- Be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there.
- Be not afraid of the not-knowing, for that is the mystery; seek the meaning discovered there.
- And if the world has ceased to hear you, say to the silent earth, I flow; to the rushing waters, I am.
- The entire world of non-humans (the birds, creepy crawlies, four-leggeds, trees, plants, lichens, and every creature) rejoiced at our quarantine. Our cars stopped–we ceased racing. So if, when this is all over, the “world” has ceased to hear you, renew your friendship to the earth and all the non-human beings by saying, “I flow! I am!”