I’m posting today as part of 1000 Voices for Compassion — a simple call for one thousand individuals to interpret and write about the need for human compassion, each in their own way. Me? I’m here to suggest something that at first sounds counterintuitive: if we’re going to practice compassion for others, sometimes we first need to practice it for ourselves. ❤
I still remember where I was when I first realized that life was going to require me to be a more compassionate person — a lot more compassionate.
I was in grad school at the time, on a cold, gray afternoon much like this one, driving home from a long day on campus. I took the turns hard, my hands clenched on the wheel. The car squealed around the curves, plumes of gravel skittering behind the tires.
I drove angry because I was angry — angry at myself.
I can’t remember why I was angry, now. Maybe one of my students had copped an attitude and I’d let him. Maybe I’d written another short-story that I considered to be sub-par. Maybe I’d said the wrong thing or done the wrong thing, worn the wrong sweater or spent a dollar badly. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I was repeating a string of words over and over to myself, whispering straight toward the snow-flung windshield, my voice disdainful and savage-sounding and soft:
You’re so stupid. You’re so stupid. You’re so stupid…
We’re here today to talk about compassion, and in that moment of my life, I thought I knew what it was.
Like many young people raised and educated in the conservative Christian milieu, I cut my teeth on principles of self-denial and Christlike compassion. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
By my mid-twenties, on that gray ribbon of a road, I’d heard those words so many times that they sometimes seemed sewn on the backs of my eyelids, so I could see them subconsciously each time I blinked:
Do unto others.
Love your neighbor.
Do unto others.
Love your neighbor.
I thought I was doing this. I really did. I didn’t see any problem with the fact that I’d been trying to love my neighbor while starving myself half to death — plodding back, again and again, to an eating disorder that never left me thin or beautiful enough.
It didn’t seem strange to me, then, that I was trying to love God while constantly bad-mouthing His handiwork.
On that day though, as the car shuddered around a turn, I heard myself saying those words — You’re so stupid, you’re so stupid — and I realized with sudden shock that I would never think of speaking to anyone else this way.
I wouldn’t call my friends stupid.
I wouldn’t even call my enemies stupid.
But somehow, here I was calling myself stupid and thinking that this constant name-calling was okay.
In that moment, it was like my Creator shook me by the shoulders and said: If you can’t love yourself, what happens when you try to love your neighbor as yourself?
My Creator was right: I wasn’t training myself to be a very good neighbor.
I don’t know when, exactly, I began believing that to love myself was a kind of selfishness.
I do know that I stopped believing it that day in the car.
I slowed the vehicle and wept quietly as I drove, asking the Creator to give me better words for myself:
I’ve been trying to treat myself with kindness ever since.
And here’s what I’m learning: if I can love myself, I am better equipped to love those who aren’t able or willing to love me in return.
If I can forgive myself, I have good practice in forgiving my enemies, among whom I often stand.
And if I can see beauty in my own mirror — even when I’m feeling too fat or too thin, too old or disheveled or tired — then I’m much more likely to see beauty in the face of some exhausted woman on the street corner, who might well need a kind word.
I don’t know why all this is true; it just is.
So here, I guess, is what I am getting at: if we’re going to talk about compassion today, then let’s not neglect to give a little to ourselves.
Would you take a little time today to see your own magic? To pass it on?
I dare you. ❤
If you’d like to read more from those individuals participating in the 1000 Voices for Compassion project, click the button above. Or search the hashtag #1000Speak on Twitter.