Wednesday, April 13, 2011


“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.”


  1. Sigh. Sigh. sigh. I have been sighing alot lately! man o man I totally get this. What can I say. I love that I know just what it means to be set off into a weeklong contemplation by one thing that someone says!

    Some work teaches compassion, I think. I worked with homeless people when I was 19. I'm not bragging I'm just saying. It was a pure product of experience that I have more compassion for people who experience homelessness. At the same time, I was also going through a horrible self-crisis and I think being able to have SOMETHING to focus on outside of the self allows us to create perspective. That gives patience, pity and empathy its boundaries. Which is necessary too.

    Love you heaps. I was raised Catholic too. So I get that too.

  2. The hardest bit about having compassion for myself is that I know my motives! And evidently my spirit hasn't yet reached the threshold of my nonsense :)