“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I said these words thousands of times in my life. They were part of the mass when I was a child going to Catholic school and attending church services every Sunday for 20 years. And though I no longer go to church, the residue left behind by these words still clings.
For me, growing up Catholic meant having an over-developed conscience that would never shut up. This certainly didn’t mean I never did anything wrong. Instead, it meant I felt guilty no matter what I did. I was simply unable to cut myself any slack and therefore always felt inadequate and guilty.
During college, and immediately after while I was in the Peace Corps in Yemen, I drifted quickly away from the Church—from all faith, actually. Nowadays I am a confirmed atheist.
And yet still it clings—that infernal guilt.
I have been thinking a lot about compassion lately; what it is, where it comes from, how it makes itself known. The most obvious prod for pondering compassion was a conversation I had while driving to New York last weekend. I mentioned that I was having a hard time feeling much patience for a particular someone in my life. A friend in the car opined that patience is really another word for compassion and that before I could feel much compassion for anyone else I would need to feel more for myself.
Her words landed hard and have set me on a week-long contemplation of just what this would mean. I have been trying to get at the difference between pity, empathy, and compassion. Also, I have been trying to decide if I agree that you need compassion for yourself BEFORE you can really feel it for others. It makes sense in a “yeah-everyone-says-that-so-it-must-be-true” sort of way, but I want to know if it is really true. And, if so, why?
One of the things that drives me nuts about so many New Age, self-help, love-yourself programs is their focus on the individual. The upside of my Catholic upbringing is a strong sense of the need to be useful to the world. Many self-help gurus tend to stop with learning to love yourself. There is often far too much belly-button gazing and not enough focus on how that self you learn to love can and should be out in the world adding to the overall store of good.
So I don't want compassion for myself to be a codeword for allowing and excusing any behavior I choose. It has to be more, and different. I still don’t know the answers to any of my questions about compassion, but I am getting a strong sense that whatever I come to might reject the “I am not worthy” line that started this piece and replace it with something very much like this from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”