Lessons in Compassion
Death and serious illness have run rampant in my life this year. In February my 88 year old mother passed on. Even though her health had not been good for several years and she would sometimes ask, "Why am I still here?", her actual passing was unexpected. She had been admitted to the hospital for some tests to see why she was in so much pain and she went from talking to the nurses to collapsing and dying in the wee hours of the morning. In some ways her death was a relief. Life was challenging for her, especially as she became more and more limited in her mobility and what she could do.
My relationship with my mother was not an easy one. I've been looking back and reflecting a lot in the last six months. She could be very critical, however, now when I remember how she would say things like, "Your legs are short and your thighs are heavy", I am also remembering that she almost always would add, "just like mine". She was critical not only of me, but of herself. Now, many years later, I recognize that she had no self-compassion. In fact, I feel like I have only been learning about empathy and concern in the last 20 years or so, especially for myself.
I don't think anyone would say I was uncaring. I felt badly if things didn't go well for someone and I could get sad when it was appropriate. At the same time, I learned to "buck up" and to get tough. My mother didn't have the luxury of loving, caring parents and
she grew up with a lot of difficult situations. She learned to deal with all of this by developing an ever critical voice, toward herself and others. It was her coping mechanism and it started out being mine. I learned well from her.
For far longer than I would like to admit, I judged and blamed nearly everyone and especially myself. Since I looked OK on the outside ... that is, I excelled in school, had friends, and was involved in many extracurricular activities ... I never thought there was anything wrong. In truth, there wasn't, but there was a lot that was sad about the way I learned to negotiate life. Since I appeared to function well, I stayed under the radar, however I started to get glimpses of a different, much better way to exist.
Over time, I studied and retreated and workshopped my way into a new way of being. I started to look at things very differently. At first, I got angry at my mother, at my parents, for "teaching" me inadequate skills that didn't get me the results I wanted in my world. I still struggle with these difficult emotions and both theirs and my imperfections and I understand it more and gently accept it. At the same time, I am grateful (and, filled with some sorrow) that they modeled a way of managing life that I don't want for myself. Once I started on a path of true self-care and even tenderness it has been impossible to turn back. Sometimes it feels harder than being angry and even unkind, but those harsh qualities are becoming more and more unacceptable to me.
For many years I had no idea that I wasn't accepting myself on some level. I had no idea that my annoyance and irritation was not only directed at others, but also toward myself. Sometimes I grapple with and stumble around in guilt over the way I wish I had been able to act with others. I can't change any of what's already happened. The best thing I can do is to keep on healing and changing in ways that serve me best and allow me to improve my relationships. It's the best thing I can wish for anyone.