In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times — UUS:E Virtual Worship — April 26, 2020

You can watch UUS:E virtual Sunday Service from April 26, 2020 on YouTube here.

Read the text to Penny Field’s homily on compassion:

In Search of Compassion in Challenging Times         

I want to begin by sharing a personal story: Paul and I began sheltering in place on March 12. I had a lot of fear of getting the virus and having complications so I didn’t want to need to grocery shop for several months. I did a big grocery shop on the 11th and the house was well stocked but very soon after I noticed that I was thinking about food all of the time. I noticed how worried I felt about how I would keep getting fresh greens without going to the store or what we do if we ran out of this or that. Or what if the food supplies dried up? I could not stop thinking about food. I intellectually knew that we had plenty and I didn’t need to worry but some part of me was thinking about it constantly. And then I would feel a huge wave of shame about the fact that I have so much privilege, I have plenty of food, I have an extra freezer filled with great things and I’m still feeling this anxiety. What’s wrong with me?

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion in these days of the coronavirus. What exactly is compassion and how can we all experience more of it? Compassion is a bit of a tricky word. It’s one that we think we understand the meaning of but often, when asked to define it’s hard to articulate what we understand compassion to be. Usually, people use words like “sympathy” or “empathy” or talk about the feeling of wanting to help those less fortunate. But I think it’s more than that.

Sympathy, and even empathy, place the person feeling that as separate from those receiving it. Aww I feel sorry for you!  Let me help you with that! Of course, wanting to help is never a bad thing but true compassion is something different. Something more. Kristen Neff, one of the first researchers in the field of self-compassion, has developed a definition that I think does a very good job capturing the true meaning of the word. She defines compassion as the ability to hold suffering with loving kindness

This sounds simple but it’s harder than you might think. To hold suffering with kindness we first have to really notice and acknowledge the suffering. Opening up to the awareness of someone else’s pain can feel quite uncomfortable. It’s why so many people walk by the homeless, the mentally ill, the panhandlers, and completely ignore them or have a judgement like: I’m not giving them money, they’ll just buy drugs. To be mindful of the suffering is to really see the human being and to acknowledge their pain: That must be so hard! Something terrible must have happened to that person that they are in this situation now. Truly being mindful of suffering can be very challenging.

And for some of us, we may be able to be present with other people’s suffering and even able to offer help but can’t seem muster much compassion for ourselves and don’t even think to try. How many of us are harshly critical of our own pain and have trouble being kind to ourselves? We might confuse self-compassion with feeling sorry for ourselves or we have a loud inner critic that thinks we can somehow “should” ourselves into better behavior. There I was in my anxiety about if there would be enough food for me during this pandemic and what did I say to myself? I said, “What’s wrong with me?” instead of “Wow. This feels really scary and it’s hard to be this afraid.”

To hold suffering, others’ or your own, with kindness not only requires really noticing the pain but it also calls us to pay attention to how we all suffer and how your suffering is or easily could be mine. This is our opportunity to reach for connection inside of the suffering. The Latin root for the word compassion is PATI, which means to suffer, and the pre-fix COM means with. COMPATI literally means to suffer with. Compassion brings people together in the suffering.

This, too, can be really hard. It’s so human to want to be separate from others’ suffering. It feels safer to think: That could never happen to me or If so and so would just stop doing that they wouldn’t be in that trouble. It’s a survival instinct to protect me and mine from perceived danger and often, other people’s suffering is perceived as a danger so we don’t habitually look for how that trouble could so easily also be ours. But if we can notice suffering and look for how we know that pain too, or how it’s so human to suffer in that way, then we are reaching for the invisible string that ties us all together.  We are choosing love as our religion.

This truth that we are all connected, what UUs name as the interconnected web of life; that we all suffer in strikingly similar ways, has never been so apparent as now, during this global pandemic. We are suffering the shared trauma of a completely unknown future. So many of the feelings associated with this time are shared by everyone, even if the actual day to day realities are radically different.

If you are someone who has a home and is able to shelter in place that does not mean you don’t have fear about the future. If you are able to work from home, that does not mean you don’t have fear of financial insecurity. If you are sheltering with family or friends, that does not mean you are not lonely or missing connecting in person with people. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-stocked pantry, that does not mean you don’t suffer from food insecurity.

And if you have feelings of guilt about your privilege you are not alone. It’s human and so many of us share those feelings and we can begin to practice compassion for ourselves. Can we notice our fears, our grief, our anger and can we acknowledge how human those feelings are? Can we then hold those feelings with an attitude of kindness as opposed to guilt or self-criticism?

Because I have a regular compassion practice, eventually I was able to make space for and truly notice and sit with my anxiety about having enough food. When I did that, I realized that my fear was deeply connected to childhood and ancestral issues. My mother was a depression baby and she raised me with all kinds of deprivations around food. Everything I wanted to eat was either too expensive or too fattening. This had a huge impact on my relationship with food and so the ability to be generous with food and have access to a wide array of delicious things for myself and to share with others became a big part of my identity. Of course I would have fears around food access.

And as I sat with that, I remembered that my mother’s mother escaped the pogroms to travel alone to the US, and that her mother lived in poverty in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. I began to understand that as a Jew, there was likely true food insecurity back to times of my earliest ancestors. That recognition allowed me to release the shame about my own fears and opened the door to a deep feeling of connection to all of the people who are suffering from actual food insecurity during this time of the pandemic. From a place of true compassion for myself and others, I could make donations to several local food banks and participate in a local initiative to bring food to the homeless. I could hold the suffering with kindness and feel my common humanity.

Whatever you are experiencing during this time, I wish for you the ability to practice true compassion for yourself and others. Whatever you are feeling, whatever you are struggling with, it’s human and we all have those feelings. If we can be mindful, pay attention to pain, to fear, to grief, to boredom, and remember our common humanity, we can truly feel that invisible string that connects us all and with kindness we can, be gentle with ourselves and from that place, reach out to those in need as if they were our own loved ones. As the Brandy Carlile song says:

we can be each other’s wheels and road

for each other’s heavy load,

see us through thick and thin,

for love and loss until the end.

Amen and blessed be