Compassion is a beautiful word. Literally it is ‘com’ (with) ‘passion’ (suffering). To be with someone in the face of difficulty, challenge and the mystery that is human suffering. In our 21st Century world, there are many things that ‘compete’ for our compassion, whether it be emotional television appeals of hardships in other places, the plight of various stories in our newspaper, or whether it is those experiencing hardship in our towns and cities.
In our churches, compassion is a key concept in pastoral care and in meeting needs in our communities. We are at the stage now where psychologists identify compassion fatigue as an element of individual burnout. I am mindful of the fact that if we are to exercise compassion to others, we fundamentally need to learn how to be compassionate to ourselves. Quite frankly, we are not cut out for this over-stimulated existence in the 21st Century. We are ‘tuned in’ 24/7 to the sufferings of the world, modern life is increasingly hectic and jam-packed, and then we wonder why people burn out.
There has never been a more important time to slow down and have compassion on ourselves. How can we do it though? Everyone is different, of course, but I think there are a few important generic ways that we can show compassion to ourselves.
1. Simplify. There is only so much clutter, news, contact, stimulation, junk, we can deal with. In this Lenten season, the spiritual invitation is there to consider leanness, less, and to find peace in that. In organic terms, we have to cut off leaves in one season to see fruit in another.
2. Space. Closely related to simplification is to find a space to be. Whether you are introvert or extrovert, creating space where you can re-evaluate, relax and chill is so important. Our diaries can rule us, we can become slaves to work, and forget that life is for the living. Whatever you do with some recreation space, it is so important. God wasn’t being pedantic when he introduced the concept of sabbath. He was telling us we need it. Carve out some time for yourself.
3. Not over-thinking. Our brains are amazing organs, but a lot of our trouble comes from over-thinking, creating problems in our heads that don’t exist. And, even if our fears have some grounds in reality, most fear is just a self-preservation reaction trying to keep us safe and where we are, where courage is the willingness to take the step. The practice of reading into things that aren’t there gives us a hard-time. Instead of creating an impossible situation in our heads, we can learn to think the best.
4. Be creative. For me, I need to engage in some sort of creative process to feel ‘balanced.’ For me, that can be writing, drawing, playing music, singing or other stuff. Incidentally, those things are often the first things to go when life gets busy. We have to ask, what do I love doing? What simple things give me joy? How can I take time to do things I enjoy?
5. Forgive. Yes, forgive yourself. We are the hardest people to forgive. We think out how we messed up this or messed up that. Let yourself off the hook, clear the slate. We can do very little about yesterday or tomorrow, all we have is this present moment to look upon ourselves, recognise our limitations, and extend grace. We are enough, we sometimes make mistakes, but a key to transforming the sentence we put upon ourselves is to cut ourselves some slack.
There have been so many times in my life where, in the process of exercising a compassionate ministry, I’ve been useless about caring for the carer, sitting with my own pain, forgiving my own failures, and working myself into the ground. I’m getting over that and stepping out on the path to a more compassionate future. I hope I can encourage you to do the same.