For my birthday, my friend Jane Ann gave me Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life.” An admirable goal. For me the greater, steeper, first struggle is being compassionate towards myself.
Simon Weil said that “humility is compassion for one’s self.” A very smart, perhaps over-functioning, woman once confessed to me, “I cannot begin to imagine what that means.”
I tried to explain: “…being human should be freeing– you don’t have to expect yourself to be or try to be… well… superhuman. Your struggles and limitations, they are neither so singular nor condemning. We all have some shortcomings. Yours are yours, but they are o.k. too. …There’s a pathos in our faults that can teach us to show our imperfect selves forgiveness and to treat ourselves with kindness.”
It could also be said that it’s awfully hard to love others before you love yourself.
Yet in modern life, for many people, it’s easier to beat themselves up. People castigate themselves for failures to achieve their objectives and their potential. In an economic system that prizes effectiveness and profit as the bottom line, this temptation might be even greater– reinforced by so many outside parameters of success and self-estimation.
But people often also judge themselves harshly by recycling other’s accusations and disapproval over and over again. A critical parent’s voice gets inside one’s head and heart and is often heard a whole life long.
And individuals internalize and personalize the hierarchies and prejudices of the world. Women can mistake the ways they are different from men for inferiorities. Queer folk struggle because they cannot live up to heterosexual norms. People of color’s whole lives are lived out the shadow of an over-estimation of all things white.
I wonder sometimes if our self-criticalness isn’t also an existential danger, or at least a product of the human life cycle. Our first, infant experiences are of powerlessness, helplessness, and neediness. There’s aspects of these experiences that haunt us all through life. Instead of feeling compassionate for the places and ways we are fearful, we judge ourselves weak and inadequate. We get stuck with these conclusions about ourselves, and fail to assimilate new identities as we grow and take on capacity and greater self-determination?
Beloved, just as you have a choice about how to treat others– to be unkind or compassionate– consider how you take care of yourself. My point is: with friends, you can recognize, accept, even appreciate their faults and weaknesses without lessening your affection for them. Why can’t we show ourselves a similar largesse?
My friend Carol just sent me a copy of a print she had in her house in Syracuse, before she and Sam relocated to Tucson. It reads, “I’ve always liked the time before dawn, because there’s no one around to remind me who I’m supposed to be. So it’s easier to remember who I am.”
Early mornings at 4th & Race are sacred times for me. There’s hardly any traffic; It’s almost quiet. The birds haven’t begun all the racket and commotion. I hear Gus arrive early; go into the church building to pray before the meeting. And the light begins to appear, as if God is slowly turning up creation’s dimmer switch. And then the sun, as it rises over the roof of the sanctuary…
There is a story of a Brahmin priest encountering the Buddha meditating under a tree. Astonished by the Buddha’s strength, serenity and composure, the priest asked, “Are you a God, sir? Are you an angel? Or a spirit?” “No,” the Buddha replied, “remember me as one who is awake.”
Waking up has to do with practicing compassion for oneself, that we can then extend the practice– and such love– to others.
See you in church,
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