Friday, November 09, 2007

Slouching Towards Compassion

Today is the anniversary of my father's death forty-two years ago, and for forty-two years I have struggled to come to an understanding of him and especially, his frequently unsupportive treatment of me. In a post I wrote on this date last year, I tried to explore some memorable aspects of his dramatic personality.

His favoritism of my older brother is legendary in our family, and while much of it was doubtless gender-related, I punished myself further by believing that my brother must be more worthy of our father's love and respect than I. We will never know if he grew up to be a more confident adult because of his early and continuous nurturing, or whether it was simply in his stars.

I think it matters more that we have both survived our lives so far and try to be the best we can than whether one of us had a head start. Any other view is absurd at this point, but it occurs to me that none of us is immune to snobbishness of one kind or another. It's easy to feel condescending toward those who seem not to have suffered as much as we have. It isn't so much a competitive thing, but we tend to believe that people who have had easier lives are incapable of understanding real suffering.

When such unwelcome (and unworthy) thoughts about others invade my consciousness, I remind myself that it's not their fault they haven't suffered. Isn't our main goal a suffering-free world, after all? We don't get to pick and choose who gets that.

We all have our own karma, and there is no worldly explanation for why everything seems to come easily to some people while others never quite manage to have their needs met.

Since truth is where we stand to look at a thing, we can't ever know the suffering in another's heart. A perfect life, seen from afar, is an inaccurate perception at best.

Everyone experiences suffering sooner or later. This provides endless opportunities to practice kindness and compassion, for there would be no other reason for us to witness it.

That said, it probably is harder to come to a place of real compassion from a privileged life than from one of hardship. We have to know how suffering feels before we can recognize it in others. We can't always avoid pain, but we can choose how to respond to it. We can become bitter, envious and stingy with both material things and affection, or we can grow compassion.

Like charity, compassion begins at home. When we are unable to love ourselves, it is impossible to open our hearts and minds to others.

Too many of us have been taught that we must always place others ahead of us, that humility demands we put ourselves down so we will not become immodest or self-important. Perhaps we were trained in these behaviors so our parents could control us more easily. They were the ultimate authority, and we learned early in life that it was easier to go with the program, which does not, however, serve us well as adults.

Perhaps the hardest thing to achieve is a state of balance. Taking care of others while also tending to our own needs. It's a cliche that we cannot give from an empty well, yet we all lead busy lives with many responsibilities and commitments. It's inevitable that someone will be short-changed, and that someone is usually ourselves. It is not possible to maintain such a pace forever, though, and eventually we begin to feel neglected. We turn to others to give us what we need, but they are also overextended and have little to give.

This vicious cycle must be broken because it leads to nothing but wheel spinning and resentment as we begin to measure out what we give to others and what they give us in return, hardly a breeding ground for compassion. Or even worse, we tell people of our sacrifices on their behalf, which completely negates the gift and leaves its recipient feeling terrible and used.

When I was in the Social Work field, some of my colleagues liked to shout their own praises from the rooftops. They seemed to have chosen such work to assuage their own fears that they were not good enough and constantly needed to prove their worth.

Mother Teresa was too busy ministering to her flocks to worry about her efforts being noticed.

Contemplating my father's life and death today, I am struck by the fact that perhaps he taught me my most important lesson: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" (Rabbi Hillel, born around 65 BCE; many of the teachings attributed to Jesus were in fact borrowed from him.)

Such a complicated business, this compassion, a goal that is never quite achieved. Our work is never done. But is there really a better way to spend our lives than in cultivating it?

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
-Dalai Lama-


thailandchani said...

wowza! Great post! Really. I like it when you get thinky. :)

In so many cases, it does become competitive. Everyone wants to air their stories so that everyone will know they've had it worse than someone else.

In the final analysis though, it is all about karma. We each have our lessons and we create the circumstances we need to learn them.

Additionally, what constitutes suffering to me might not even hit your radar screen.

The ultimate lesson though, in my opinion, is that we are all community. I am you and you are me. When we allow our "oh so busy" lives to override that, we're missing the greatest learning opportunity we will have in this lifetime which is sharing our lives, sharing our burdens and, yes, even our suffering.

Sorry. I seem to have written a post in your comments section. :)

thailandchani said...

Sorry about the second comment. I forgot to click the box for follow-up comments. :)

Anonymous said...

There is so much I could say like how I agree with everything you've written here and how amazing you pegged the topic and really got to the heart of the matter. But, mostly I would like to say you are an amazing writer. I love your style.

seventh sister said...

I think complicated relationships with others, especially parents, can lead to complicated relationships with ourselves. This can carry on into complicated relationships of all kinds. Not being the favorite child is something a lot of us expereinced. It sounds like your experience was pretty harsh. I am glad that you are using it to grow in a positive way.

Sienna said...

This hurt, it hurt really bad reading this; (but I also love that you share your thoughts and a part of your life).

It hurts so badly because children are so beautiful and innocent and need to be nutured,protected, encouraged, loved and be allowed to be themselves and show their emotion and creativity, and know that they are the greatest gift to their parents...

I am so glad you have not let your Dad's definition of you be can be so challenging, so difficult to let our own light shine after others have tried to dim it...but your loving, compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful beautiful light shines across the Pacific...I think your are very inspiring..

Thanks so much for writing this, from the bottom of my heart.


heartinsanfrancisco said...


Competitiveness is so ingrained in most of us that even the most bizarre circumstances can trigger it.

And of course you are right about the need, also ingrained, for community with whom to share our lives.


I'm glad we agree on these things. Thank you.


Negativity is really a waste of time, and none of us has time to waste. Life is short. It is always better to count our blessings than to bemoan our misfortunes.


I guess if there were no challenges, we would never learn anything. I know that I gain all my spiritual growth spurts from pain. When things are perfect, I just enjoy them and learn little.

And I love the image of a light shining across the Pacific!

Anonymous said...

perhaps he taught me my most important lesson: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

Ooooo, ho, ho, hoooo, yeeessss indeed. And I am grateful for this learning as it has served me well. Through these words I am now reminded of a benefit derived from years of pain.

More when I get some rest. Long day at the "zoo".


jali said...

Remember the song by Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"? Perhaps it wasn't your Dad's intention, but based on what I know of you he made you stronger because of the way you were treated. Perhaps it wasn't his intention, but he contributed to the great character of one of the people online that I admire the most.

You've overcome and that's wonderful.

I'll bet this post is here today for someone who needs to read it, and who might be helped by your strength.

Scarlet said...

Compassion doesn't come from an easy life, and neither does strength and character.

You're more in touch w/ your feelings because of what you've gone through. It shows in your writing, and that in itself is a blessing. Bittersweet, but still, a blessing.

Ian Lidster said...

This was wonderful. No wonder I love you. You echoed so many of my thoughts on the matter, especially having, like you, come from a dysfunctional and less than compassionate home.

My sister-in-law once said: "It's amazing that you and your brother are such warm and loving people considering where you came from." Well, in both our cases it involved a lot of work, but I am so happy we made the effort. One brother didn't. It shows.

I also learned that in order to receive love and compassion, I had to give it. I had to give it unconditionally.

As for parents, I'll close with a couple of lines from poet Philip Larkin (I love this because it's true):

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They don't mean to, but they do."

Continue your quest.

WNG said...

While there are some things taht cause pain universally there are things which would wound me to the quick which you might not even notice.
That's the hardest lesson for me to remember - the each person's pain is different and also valid; that each person's suffering is her/his own.
Thank you for the reflection.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Psycho T,

I think we all learn best from pain, which is, itself, a painful fact.

Everything happens for a reason. If we can transmute it into something that helps us on our path, and others, we become whole again.


I always think of that song when I get ads for products that will make my penis bigger. It seems the folks who send them to me do, too.

Johnny Cash was great, even though I don't like Country music.


I wouldn't dismiss those who have easy lives as lacking strength of character, but they may not know they have it if it's never been tested.

Maybe we all have blessings of which we are unaware. Bittersweet is good, especially if it's chocolate.


Philip Larkin is right up there with, um, Shakespeare. :)

I think you've put your finger on it - you have to give before you get, which is what faith is all about. The unconditional part is the hardest, though.


You raise a good point, as did Chani. Everyone can be wounded in different ways.

It's well to remember this when trying to help others because it's too easy to make assumptions based on what hurts US.

I am not Star Jones said...

your post is an inspiration to practice compassion with everyone, even the odious.

thanks to you, i am going to try
no matter how hard it is.

storyteller said...

Your post resonates with me as it has with others today ... and the lessons learned shine through for all to see.

What you say is your most important lesson: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" seems most poignant along with the point you make about finding BALANCE.

We each come to understand "truth" in our own unique ways, yet I believe that sharing our stories helps others remember theirs. You've done that beautifully today.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I suspect that you did not need any lessons along this line, and I will continue to try, too, on the theory that practice makes perfect.


I'm sure that the sharing of stories is one of the reasons we were given the gifts of speech and writing.

Just trying to be kinder is probably half the battle.

MsLittlePea said...

Wonderfully written post. And painfully true. It hit home for me in your words about balance.

Perhaps your father favored your brother because he thought as a girl, you didn't need him as much? Oh if only every father could know how important it is for their daughter to have their unconditional love, attention and pride. And have the ability to give that to her.

eastcoastdweller said...

This is truth. And it makes people such as the Buddha and the Emperor Asoka of India all the more special, because, in spite of the privilege they grew up with, they became people of great compassion.

Anonymous said...

Everything happens for a reason. If we can transmute it into something that helps us on our path, and others, we become whole again.

Totally. Meaning in suffering.

Well, I've had some rest, read and re-read this piece and the link about your father, the Earl of Salad Dressing, and I've got to say you are one brilliant light--your ability to express experience is magnificent. Being a newer kid on this block, I don't know your background but I sure the hell (is sailor talk permitted in these here parts?) hope you've either had a book published or have a deal pending 'cause, honey, you got it going on. Jesus.

So many things in this glorious post kindled resonance.

We all have our own karma, and there is no worldly explanation for why everything seems to come easily to some people while others never quite manage to have their needs met.

And this, in the end, is what I end up sharing with patients asking me to explain the why of it all. Individual soulwork, is what feels the most "right", our own evolutionary path, a race with no one, is what makes the most sense. But I cannot swear to it, only "know" it. And hope.

Thank you for sharing your world in such a way it can be felt and understood, recognized and appreciated. Really, consider publishing. Outstanding.

Your father is so proud.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

No, actually, he was a male chauvinist who really believed that men were superior to women. It was not easy being the daughter of such a man because despite my considerable resentment, I tried to be like him and not my mother as it was clear that he had all the power, and the greater charisma.


Few of us can live up to the examples you give, yet knowing that they accomplished what they did gives hope to all.

Psycho T,

I can't tell you how much I appreciate your unbelievably kind words.

I began a childhood memoir years ago but haven't done anything with it since I started blogging over a year ago.

I thought of trying to get it published but have no idea how to go about this, or if it's really any good.

If you would actually like to read more such memorabilia, I posted some on these dates:

9/21/06 and 12/20/06 and one on my children on 10/23/06.

It must be very difficult to be a spiritual teacher as well as a therapist, and to know which is required.

I admire so much the fact that you understand that your patients need more than feel-good drugs and someone to talk at. I believe that I could have benefited greatly from therapy if there had been someone like you available to me.

Anonymous said...

"Heartsy", well thank you. I don't have the ability to say anything I don't mean (you can pretty much bet your bottom dollar on it), nor am I one to gratuitously compliment. You're just that damned good, face it. (See, you never said anything about your comfort level with the cursing business and the f-word can't help but roll off this tongue so it's best if you let me know sooner than later I'm a thinkin'.)

Oh my god, I am reading some of your 2006 posts enroute to the "specially marked" entries you recommend (because I seem to think I have all the time in the world to do household shit today. See? I'm warning you) and all I can say is perhaps "This Is What You Look Like Down There" is a more apt title for that memoir. That or "Getting Cousin Jane to Poop Behind the Oil Burner". I don't know, both have nice rings.

I am sooo enjoying your archives. I think I'll curtail further hardcover reading and try to grab a look at your older posts in-between patients in the days ahead. They are all hysterical...and intelligent...and insight... and...

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Better, "You Have A Bagina, Don't You?"

I cannot stop laughing. Too good.

"I shall not return this evening, regardless of how deeply moved I am." she told herself as she slipped back into the archives and put the last load of laundry in the dryer.


Mariposa Speaks said...

Wow! Very nice post and what a nice way for me to reflect on a Monday morning...

As far putting ourselves first over others or vice thought here, is when I do things for people, I am not in a way putting them before myself, bec each time I do it, it is always for some selfish makes ME feel it is not a sacrifice...not at all!

Sienna said...

Everything is good Hearts, I get my early shiftwork completed and I kinda get over at your place and meander off onto the blogs (of your roll;) it's so damn interesting and am learning much from these people, I click on one of their names which takes me into a labyrinth (my own creation)...then get lost in the moment.

Our world is just incredible:

*The universe seems wondrous to me, with or without God. It has powerful lines and uncompromising ways. Patience and time sit like sages on the planets, strong and impersonal. There is a stark beauty to all of this.*

I am a believer of stark beauty and wonder...Hearts I just get myself lost in all this...and then forget to come home! :)


PS(I travelled 4 countries writing this message)

Jocelyn said...

You're sure you're not going to run for office? Cuz I'm about to race out there and appoint myself your campaign manager. I want you to run the world--compassionately and all.

This part..."it probably is harder to come to a place of real compassion from a privileged life than from one of hardship" something I thank yor for writing.

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

Balance. Yes, that is the challenge. Balance. Ever read Thich Nhat Hanh? Water your lettuce.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Psycho T,

Ah, you've been reading the archives, haven't you?

Thank you for the suggested titles. I remember writing about those topics but not when, or what the posts were called. I wonder how poor Cousin Jane is doing. I hope she didn't grow up with any major complexes because of me and the oil burner.


You put that really well. We do enjoy a kind of pleasure that could be considered selfish when we do for others. I should have asked you to write this post for me, for your own pleasure, of course.


I'm so glad you found your way out of the labyrinth which opened out into my blog.

It's so good to see your smiling face again!

Four countries in the space of a comment. That's so impressive! Next time, come by here first and I'll go, too, okay?


I'm going to print out your comment and hang it over my desk, the part about running the world. And every day I will meditate on it until it comes true.

See? You've created a monster.


I have read Thich Nhat Hanh, and I am watering my lettuce now. It's very nice lettuce, too.

Sienna said...

Hearts its me again, I just wanted to share this with you, your post and everyones comments really really echos about what I saw(watched)...this is one of my favorite shows on tv SBS and they featured a discussion on *Bouncing Back* on a program called "Insight"

You maybe able to watch the video footage of it if your internet connection is strong and fast is the link:

Resilience and how people cope with stuff has been rattling around in my head for a few days

I'll go now :)

Properly this time.


Rebecca said...

really wonderful post Susan - and full of important truths.

"nothing but wheel spinning and resentment as we begin to measure out what we give to others and what they give us in return, hardly a breeding ground for compassion."

THis, particularly, struck me as significant today - (I've been feeling a bit disgruntled with someone - a bit hard-done by) This is somthing I need to remember. Thankyou!

meno said...

I believe that imagination and empathy enable me to understand suffering that i have not experienced.
I have similar feelings about my mother, and i know that some good lessons came out of it for me. But i cannot help wondering what how my life might have been different with some support and encouragement.
Do you wonder too?

Anonymous said...

I think you have that balance, at least I sense it, from what I can tell in your words. You obviously see you in a different manner than the world. We see you now, the you that is shown. You still (and forever) see the child, the daughter, the junior high schooler, the teenager, the young adult. You have lived with those variations of you all your life, so some aspect shall never leave. You might be surprised by your brothers own feeling of worth, even as an adult.

Thank you for the wonderful post, the very thoughtful quotes.

Open Grove Claudia said...

I love the beautiful way you write about your willingness to embrace this human experience! yay!

One of my favorite stories of/about Jack Kornfield is his first years at the monastery. He was instructed to bow to every single person he came upon. As an American, he was incensed by the idea of bowing to everyone. But after a year, he began to understand that he was bowing to the nature of God within everyone. Another year? He felt like he understood his place in things.

I bow to you.

Angela said...

Absolutely beautiful. There is so much wisdom in this post that I hardly know where to begin. Thank you for pointing the way, once again. Isn't it amazing how deep pain can lead to such great reward? Much peace and love to you today and always.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'll look for it. Thank you very much for telling me about it.


We all feel hard done by more often than we'd like. Since the world won't change, we must change our own perceptions for the sake of our sanity and to attain a reasonable peace of mind.

This is easier said than done, however.


I'll give you the short answer: Yes.


Both quotes speak to me. It's always amazing how great minds who have struggled for lifetimes to attain high levels of understanding can bestow so much clarity on us with just a few words. Kind of a min-shortcut to Enlightenment.


What a wonderful story! We Americans do have our problems with humility, don't we?

I bow to you and to the deity within you as well. Namaste.


Yeah, well, wouldn't it be nice if we could eliminate the pain, though?

If somebody would write a book called "Wisdom without Pain," I would buy it.

Crankster said...

You always give me so much to think about. I, too, battle against survivor condescension, and I also have to try hard to avoid doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

A lot to chew on...

Liz said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, heart. It's odd how we don't want to suffer but we end up growing so much as a result. I remember reading somewhere about how someone complained, "Why me?" and got asked back, "Well, why not you?" LOL!

I know I wouldn't be likely to befriend folks who are shy or odd if I hadn't been the social outcast that I was (am?). But there are clearly other ways that I need to grow in my capacity for compassion.

riseoutofme said...

Wonderful post Heart ... It really and truly is all about compassion. Human beings are on the road to nowhere until they realise their potential for unconditional love.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You surprise me. From what I know of you, you have done the right thing for the right reasons from an age when most people are free to be selfish.

In case you've forgotten how great you are, chew on that.


You offer a timely reminder here: Why NOT me?

If you are a social outcast, then I would like to be one, too. Oh, wait. I AM one.


That is so true. But why do other humans so often make it difficult to keep sight of that fact?

afuntanilla said...

first time visitor! so many things about your post i could touch on, but for now, i will just say that the quote of "if i am not for myself...
is one i love and think of often.

i can really relate to much of what you wrote. thx

the individual voice said...

Complex and heartfelt post on the need for compassion towards oneself as well as towards others, a necessary balance for a peaceful world. Thanks for this.

Josie said...

Hearts, "That said, it probably is harder to come to a place of real compassion from a privileged life than from one of hardship." I had this very conversation, in these very words(!) with my little Freddie today. In his 11 years on this earth, his mother has favored his sister, and has been quite psychologically abusive to him. But in a strange twist of fate, Freddie is the child who is growing up to be well-adjusted and compassionate towards other people. I told him that our parents don't own us, they just borrow us for a little while, and that if he can keep his inner strength, that he now has, and his wonderful sense of humor, that he will grow up to be a very fine man. I told him I am very proud of him for being able to withstand what he has had to withstand for the past 11 years, and for being such a lovely person. Your post has really hit a chord with me, and I have to say thank you! You have proven it can be done.

RED MOJO said...

Wow! very thoughtful and thought provoking. I will chew on this a while, and I am certain there are bits I will keep. Thank you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I was quite young when I first heard that quote and didn't get it at all. I think I do now.

Thank you for your visit!


It's so hard to be even-handed with compassion, but as you said, it's a necessary balance for a peaceful world.

Thank you for coming by here.


I'm so sad to hear about Freddie, who sounds like a beautiful child. Luckily he has you to provide the love and approval he doesn't get at home.

I can't understand how parents can favor one child over another. My three are all quite different from each other, and I couldn't live without any of them.


I wrote it because I often need a refresher course in compassion. Sometimes it isn't easy to translate good thoughts into good action.

Thank you for your visit!

Anonymous said...

I told him if he can keep his inner strength, that he now has...he will grow up to be a very fine man. I told him I am very proud of him for being able to withstand what he has had to withstand for the past 11 years, and for being such a lovely person.

/shaking head

These are words that save lives.

I never forgot hearing something similiar at 13, though not nearly as full and eloquent, and lived off the crumbs for what felt like forever. Since then, I do all I can to give the same to others because I know the transformative and affirming power of such a gift.

We all need to be seen. We all need lifejackets.

Thank you, Josie.

CS said...

This is a beautiful meditation. Compassion can be so hard, but still worth working (slouching!) toward.

the individual voice said...

I just tagged you for a Guilty Pleasures meme. Was curious what you would come up with. Instructions on my post today. Interpret as you wish. Enjoy.

bee said...

this is such an amazing post. i've come here to read it more than a few times. i don't think i can express properly how it's made me think, but please know that it's one of the best posts i've ever read.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Psycho T,

Josie is an amazing woman. Her grandchildren are very lucky to have her, and so are we.


Sometimes even the slouching is hard.


I'll be right over. Thank you for thinking of me!


Thank you so much. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your very kind words, and your visit.

I hope you'll come back often.

Voyager said...

I think those who have been through hell and survived can more easily feel real compassion for others. It's the silver lining that comes from suffering.

Craze said...

Wonderful post. Growing up much like you, learning to not have feelings I can relate very well to what you are saying. I'm glad I also chose compassion over bitterness. Yet I stuggle daily with giving too much of myself and not saying no. Something I am committed to working on, daily, until I can learn to put myself first. Reading the post I knew you must have at some point ended up in the field of social work. What great wisdom you have!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I guess it helps to fully humanize us.

I wish there were an easier way.


I'm glad you chose to be who you are, too.

I managed a domestic violence shelter from which I was eventually fired because the Director felt that I was "unprofessional" in that I really empathized with and cared about the women I helped.

Jay said...

Big hugs, sweetie.
That's all I got.

Melanie said...

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
-Dalai Lama-

so very true. including giving these gifts to ourselves.

I first heard rabbi hillel's name yesterday. I am going to have to find some of his writings, if there is any.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That's all any of us needs to have.


He was a most enlightened being at a time when most were still clubbing each other over the head with animal bones.

Hmmmm. Some things never change, do they?

Franki said...

You are just Gorgeous!

Molly said...

Thoughtful, thought-provoking post Heart. I found myself thinking of all sorts of people I know, as I went from one paragraph to the next.
You know that saying "growing old is inevitable, growing wise, optional." Wisdom and compassion go hand in hand. It seems to me a waste of a life if the sufferings and trials we all endure don't have the silver lining of making us more compassionate.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It takes one to know one, kiddo.


You are so right! I really think that learning compassion is what it's all about, notwithstanding those who believe it's the hokey-pokey.

Since I am in fact growing old, I'd better find compensations or else I'll just be... old.

Lex said...

Thanks for this post.

It takes deliberation to distinguish what matters most from all the rest. There is so much competing for our attention and energy. Wheel spinning is futile, but compassion matters more than all else.

I'm impressed by the lessons you've learned from your own pain. I have never wanted for love from a father. Yet, I wish I carried my camera around to capture the same shots you do. A dad lovingly engaged with his daughter, to me, is one of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed.

Thanks for the information about Rabbi Hillel. I've added him to my reading list.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Your dad has always sounded like a real peach.

I'm sure that pain is our greatest teacher and the one we resist most. All the negativity on this plane is necessary if we are to surmount it. We don't grow much when everything is happening the way we want it to.

Which is not to say I wouldn't like it to be easier.