If courage were a person, how would you describe them? Ruth Gendler described courage as having “roots. She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground. Courage looks you straight in the eye. She is not impressed with powertrippers and she knows first aid. Courage is not afraid to weep and she is not afraid to pray, even when she is not sure who she is praying to. When Courage walks it is clear that she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude. The people who told me she is stern were not lying, they just forgot to mention that she is kind.”
Courage is what was hiding inside the king/queen of the forest and what lives inside each of us. Courage is kind and what tends to bring that quality out the most is Courage’s friend – Compassion. Gendler says, “Compassion wears Saturn’s rings on the fingers of her left hand. She is intimate with the life force. She understands the meaning of sacrifice. She is not afraid to die. There is nothing you cannot tell her. Compassion speaks with a slight accent. She was a vulnerable child, miserable in school, cold, shy, alert to the pain in the eyes of her sturdier classmates. The other kids teased her about being too sentimental, and for a long time she believed them. In ninth grade she was befriended by Courage. Courage lent Compassion bright sweaters, explained the slang, showed her how to play volleyball, taught her you can love people and not care what they think about you. In many ways Compassion is still the stranger, neither wonderful nor terrible, herself, utterly, always
It is the interaction between Courage and Compassion that allows us to reach out in love without internalizing what other people may think or say.
Compassion is never motivated by fear, but always by love. As we strive to become more compassionate, we need to change the way we perceive others, the world, and ourselves. We need to begin to see others and ourselves through a lens of love and appreciation. It is hard to be compassionate when we are angry, depressed, jealous, or judgmental of others. Those feelings do not come from the loving part of who we are, but the part that is still rooted in fear. While we may not be able to stop experiencing those feelings, our compassion, and courage can work together and help us to respond rather then react. We can take the time to change the ways we perceive the situation and respond out of love.
I remember one time in particular that I experienced this kind of compassion. I was taking the train from Rochester, NY to Newark, NJ to begin the process of funeralizing my father. I had been in such a rush to get on the train that I had not given much thought to how I looked, or what I was wearing. I had gotten on the train with virtually no money in my wallet, clothes that did not match, but I am sure I did not look like a prospective spiritual leader. I do not remember much about that ride. What I do remember is that the woman who was wearing a micro mini skirt and a halter-top and bright pink hair came over to me and said where are you from? All I could say was my father just passed away. She talked to me until we came to her stop and then handed me a bag with a sandwich and soda and chips. I never got her name, but what I remember was her compassion. I remember her courage to talk to a stranger and her compassion in being there for me in my time of need.
She taught me a very important lesson that day. Compassion means we bridge the gap; we do not widen them. Bridging the gap is not always as easy. One of the hardest parts of bridging the gap is recognizing in ourselves what we do not like in others. I once said that I am grateful for those who get on my last nerve because they have said me significant time in therapy. However, they have done more then that. They have challenged me to look at the part of them I do not like and where it exists in me. Over time, there are fewer people who I want to distance myself from and parts of my personality, with which I develop a different relationship.
The other important lesson that I have learned about compassion is the importance of being present. I am constantly working on all these things in my own life; however, one of them is being present. I cannot be compassionate with others if I am not actively listening to what they are saying or if I am beginning to think about what I am going to say next, judging them for what they are saying, or how they are saying it or even what they are doing or wearing. I cannot be compassionate if I am in a state of being other then the here and now. There are times when I have found myself uninterested in what someone is saying. I remember fondly how my father, in his last years, would start the same conversation over for the 3rd time in the same phone call. It was hard at times to be present when he was telling me what he had eaten and how many times he had gone to the bathroom for the third time in 20 minutes. After he passed away, I realized what a disservice I had done to myself and to him. I had missed this authentic moment between the two of us. One thing that helps me to work on being compassionate with others is that I would hope that others would be compassionate with me. I hope they would see themselves in those same situations and treat me with the compassion they would like to be treated. It is not always easy to be compassionate; sometimes we have to depend on our best friend – courage.
Ruth Gendler, The Book of Qualities (Berkely, CA: Harper Perennial, 1984), p. 23 and p. 12.