Over the years I’ve had many occasions to think about the experience of compassion, an emotion we highly value as Christians. In that time I’ve come to believe our Western, American culture doesn’t truly understand how compassion works. We think compassion is something we feel for someone else, someone else in need or someone else who is suffering. We don’t seem to grasp that the only way we can feel compassion for another is if we feel honest compassion for ourselves. Perhaps this is because we don’t like to appear self-centered or self-involved. While it is honorable to think of the well-being of others before ourselves, it can cause us to avoid that essential first step of looking inward and understanding our own feelings. It’s like that airplane emergency example: in an emergency you need to make sure you can breathe with the air mask, before you help someone else put on their air mask. When it comes to compassion, too often we try to help others when we’re struggling to breathe ourselves.

Unfortunately, if we don’t understand how compassion works we are left with an unpleasant alternative, particularly when life gets difficult. We secretly feel self-pity. I say “secretly” because self-pity fills us with shame and we try to hide it. We are ashamed of feeling pity for ourselves and we look down on others who pity themselves.

It’s essential to understand the difference between self-pity and self-compassion. They are opposite experiences. When we feel self-pity our bodies contract and tighten. We hold stress in our muscles. Our stomachs churn. We tightly hold on to our lists of grievances and are preoccupied by the ways others have hurt us. We focus on the things that have happened to us that are not fair, that we don’t deserve. Though we don’t want to admit it, we often blame God for these misfortunes. At the same time, we punish ourselves mercilessly for the mistakes we’ve made, including wallowing in the shame of self-pity. Just writing about this all too familiar experience makes my stomach hurt and my muscles tighten.

Feeling compassion for oneself is an entirely different experience. It requires a shift in awareness, based in humility and self-respect. Sometimes we cause our own suffering and sometimes we suffer through no fault of our own. Either way, when we can be a true companion to ourselves and acknowledge the pain we’ve known, the loneliness and grief we bear, we have the capacity to enter into the transformative power of compassion. The moment we understand the feeling of honest self-compassion we no longer feel tight and constricted. Our bodies straighten, our hearts open up and we are able to breathe. Compassion releases tension. Compassion releases pain. Compassion even enables us to be more honest and less punitive about our own mistakes.

Something rather miraculous happens when we shift into the experience of self-compassion. Quite spontaneously we feel compassion for everyone else, for the grief, heartache, and loneliness we know others endure. This is not a compassion for others based in a sense of duty. Rather it is a compassion that flows naturally from the heart. I believe this is physiologically true: the moment we feel for ourselves is the moment we feel for all others.

We discover something else when we experience this self-compassion. We immediately sense the presence of God. We can’t feel God’s presence when we tightly hold on to our lists of grievances and feel sorry for ourselves. When we shift our awareness and care for ourselves in an honest way, we discover that God has been here all along, loving us deeply. When our hearts open to the love that is always here for us, we become the vessels – the body of Christ – by which God’s love and grace enter a hurting world.

May the transforming power of compassion, which begins with a true appreciation for your own life, grown within you.

God bless and keep you,

About Rev. Beth Illingworth

Beth has been a member of Albany Presbytery since 1989 and comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. She is the first woman to be ordained into her family’s profession. Beth lives with her husband, Paul Greene, in Kinderhook, New York and they have two grown children, their daughter, Julian, and their son, Isaiah. Beth is currently serving as the Chaplain of Albany Presbytery and she may be reached at chaplain@albanypresbytery.org or by phone at 518-821-7990.

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