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Fear and Compassion

May 25, 2011

'Holding Hands' by Valerie Everett via

“This is what chaplains do, Monica,” I tell myself, looking at my friend, my dear friend in so much pain.  “Can I do this?”  It was a visceral fear, unknown, unexpected and certainly unwelcome.  It shook me like a leaf in a storm.  I wanted nothing more than to run away.  I wanted to turn my back and walk out that door.

But I didn’t.  Instead I sat and listened.  I felt myself being shaken in the storm of another person’s pain.  Her pain and my pain blended together within me like lightning.  I gave my attention to her suffering and to my own heart.   After a while, something changed.  I gained my footing in the gale.   I’m conscious that something bigger is changing.

If I were a superhero, my power would be the ability to intellectualize.   Ideas can’t hurt anyone.  They live purely within the mind.  They’re interesting and exciting and sometimes disappointing and often absurd, but they are always held a good twelve inches away from the heart.  When something threatening appeared, I would merely snap my fingers and surround it with an impenetrable bubble where it could be studied and contemplated, but never, ever touched.  And where it couldn’t touch anything else, most especially me.

I put my compassion in a bubble like that.  I made it into an intellectual exercise.  I told myself I wanted to take it out, to feel it, to live it.  It would make me a better person, I told myself, a better Buddhist.  I could help people better if I were compassionate.  It was a rational means to a rational end.   But you know what?  Compassion, genuine compassion, doesn’t work that way.

Compassion hurts. I realize that now.

It’s frightening. “To suffer with,” that’s what the word means. Am I really strong enough to suffer with another person? What if I don’t want to? Suffering is scary. There is just so much of it. And it seems so much more powerful than I am.

I think I knew that, so I put it in the bubble and set it up on a high shelf, a place of pride, looked at but never reached for.  I went on with my life, keeping busy, running to and fro.  It was a good way to ignore everything I wasn’t feeling.

But when you care about people, you hurt when they hurt.  It can happen almost by accident.  The bubble cracked and I didn’t even notice until a shard pierced my heart.

Life sucks and that’s the truth.  Life is messy and painful and people get hurt.  I always knew that in an intellectual way, even as I protected myself from it without even realizing what I was doing.  It’s easy to say you can accept something you never have to live with.

If you slow down for a moment, you start to make friends.  You begin to care.  And because they are alive, they are messy.  It’s not your mess, so you can’t control it.  All you can do is be with them in it.  It hurts.  It hurts them and it hurts you.

Why? Why? Why? Why would we do this?

Because love is stronger than suffering.

Buddha realized it a long time ago.  Others realized it before and after him.  More will realize it after me.  It’s not something you get all at one (unless you’ve hit the enlightenment jackpot).  The suffering is still scary.  There will always be doubt that maybe next time I’ll be struck down by it.  I’ll always wonder if love will win this time.  Maybe sometimes it won’t.

But you know, even the most wounded person, even the one with layers of gauze wrapped over bloody sores who’s afraid to barely touch another person, even that one reaches out.  We all seek contact and connection with one another, even if often in destructive, angry ways.  Deep inside, I think we all have the same sneaking suspicion – love trumps suffering.  I shall try so hard to keep this in mind as I continue to suffer with.

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