A poem written during my time as a paediatric palliative care social worker:
Have you ever?
Have you ever watched a child’s tears track their course of misery upon a smooth soft cheek?
Or looked into a sixteen-year old’s eyes who knows he’s going to die but is too afraid to speak?
Have you ever heard the anguished wail of the one-minute-ago recently bereaved?
Or seen the helpless agony of a parent as they hold their dead child’s body in a last embrace?
Have you ever entered ICU and seen the curtains drawn?
Or acted as a silent witness to the doctors bringing a little one back to life?
Have you ever felt the atmosphere of death – the silent, watchful suffering that barely draws a breath?
Or felt the unspoken dread simmering in a hospital ward of the very sick?
Have you ever wondered how we can move on and past the pain if most of it is hidden, unacknowledged, laced with shame?
Have you ever wondered how humanity can heal their broken, ravaged hearts?
Or about the toll of a constant barrage of desolation and despair upon the human soul?
Have you ever wondered about the effects of a massive accumulation of harrowing pain and grief?
How do we heal that?
Recently, I had an interaction with a person whom I trusted and at the end of the contact, I felt disregarded. At first, I noticed how enraged I was …. which is unusual for me. I tend to sit on my anger and suppress it.
While speaking through my reaction with two friends, I was like a spewing demon, using words I never use…wow! Talk about over-reaction!
When I notice something, I begin my inner work…. In this case, I tapped and tapped and I still felt angry. And I wondered why this person had provoked such intense anger in me.
Some of the possibilities were:
One week later, I was still stewing. Granted, the anger was less intense, but still there… So, I tapped and tapped, but still could not release it.
I went for a walk this morning and I tapped while I walked and contemplated. I realised that what was irritating me was the disregard of my needs. I had not been given an opportunity to explain why I was only responding now to his communication. To me, it felt like his needs were more important (I understand that this is my experience of the situation; his would be different).
I asked myself why we find it necessary to be harsh and hard with others – and yes, there are a myriad of reasons; some of which can be traced back to early childhood experiences and learnings, but I realised that, often, we are harsh and tend to look after our own needs while disregarding the needs of others when we feel that we need to protect ourselves.
I recognised that my inner bitch appears when I feel threatened or attacked…. In such circumstances, I can be scathing in order to protect myself.
I also recognised that beneath my anger was a deeper feeling of “not being valued”. Underneath was a cesspool of feelings which included feeling less than, less worthy and disregarded. Needless to say, I tapped... on this specific incident and on “all experiences that have ever caused me to feel undervalued, not valued, not worthy, less important, not as good as etc.”
And while tapping, I realised that I would like to expand the circle of regard in the world… regard for others as well as ourselves. I wondered what it would take for us to regard others’ needs as just as important as our own. I imagined a world, where, instead of being harsh, cruel and dismissive of one another, we can sit together in a circle of regard and acknowledge each other’s worthiness simply because we are human and alive. I imagined a world where we can talk to each other about what we need and then about how we can find ways of taking the needs of all into account, negotiating solutions that meet our needs in innovative and respectful ways.
Through this one incident, I have recognised how important having true regard for others is. And I am grateful for the lesson.
What does it mean to be compassionate?
The roots of the word compassion are from old French and can be summarised as “to feel pity together” and “to suffer with”. I prefer Paul Gilbert’s definition which states that “compassion can be defined as behaviour that aims to nurture, look after, teach, guide, mentor, soothe, protect, offer feelings of acceptance and belonging – in order to benefit another person” (Gilbert, P; 2013, p.217).
We cannot forget the need for self-compassion and therefore I would extend this definition to include ourselves. In learning to be compassionate people, we also need to learn to be compassionate with ourselves.
Why is compassion necessary?
Well, looking at current affairs, the world over, it seems to me that our world has become harsh, cynical and uncaring. The emphasis is on what we can get for ourselves with a growing disregard for the needs of others. We have become selfish and unconcerned about humanity as a whole and this attitude could very well lead to our demise.
Taking time to contemplate compassion as a lifestyle may seem strange. However, think of how kindness and care from others makes you feel. Your first thought may be “What does she want from me?” Gone are the days where you can simply trust what another says – these days we often look for the ulterior motive behind kindness. How tragic is that - the fact that we cannot trust one another?
According to psychological theory, the first task that a newborn needs to learn is to trust. Without trust, life seems hopeless. Fast forward to adulthood and see how not meeting this primal developmental milestone has affected us. Often, we do not trust one another. This makes us feel afraid and uncertain and leads to what the Buddhists may term “grasping” behaviour – the behaviour of looking out for myself without concern for others.
Now imagine a world where we begin the maturation process by choosing to focus on compassion as a way of being… not just as a passing thought. According to Paul Gilbert, compassion is a skill that can be learned and practised. How wonderful that is! We can learn to be more caring, more kind and more loving to one another. For me this is very empowering and I have made the choice for compassion. In fact, I choose it as my lifestyle and my way of being.
This body of compassionate work focuses on assisting each of us to choose and practice kindness and compassion – again and again and again. I would love you to join me on this journey so that we can create a different world where peace, kindness and love are no longer the exception.
My commitment to compassion being my way of life takes awareness and practice. I need to be brave enough to acknowledge those parts of me that champion “being right” and are disinterested in taking the kinder view. Ultimately, this requires that I move into the murky depths of my being to discover the shadows and the light. Sometimes, I am ashamed of what I see. Sometimes, I’m in awe. Through it all, I am learning acceptance, patience and love. I am learning to honour and love myself, with compassion, so that my experience of love expands and I am then able to let go of judgements and honour and love others, with compassion.
Carol Cooper-Steyn is a social worker who has worked in the fields of child protection, child and adolescent sexual abuse and paediatric palliative care. She qualified as a craniosacral therapist in 2002 and is a certified non-medical hypnotherapist and an emotional freedom techniques (EFT) and matrix reimprinting practitioner. Her clients view her as an incredible ‘soul coach’.