The Practice of Compassion

By Ken Wells - 01/14/2021


Series One: Blog Ninety-Five

We know that someone like Michael Jordan trained for years to get as good at basketball as he was, but we assume someone like Mother Teresa was just born like that. Really, compassion is a skill you need to practice having for other people and also for yourself.” — Interview with Laura Mustard by Emily DeMaio Newton, “The Sun Behind the Clouds”

A friend of mine sent this quote to me in an email to think about. Compassion is a necessary ingredient to progress in recovery. Treatment and 12-step communities foster it. From my perspective, I don’t think I have ever met someone who I believed did not have an ounce of compassion. Certainly, some demonstrate more than others.

Compassion is a basic component that is necessary for an addict to establish long-term sobriety. Most addicts tend to beat themselves up about their addictive behavior. Behaviors of inferiority or superiority often mask a lack of self- compassion. Having compassion for self is not about making an excuse for addictive behavior. Many addicts make excuses about things that go wrong at work, or marital and family relationships and blame them for their dependence on their addiction.

Compassion is also not about seeking pity from others or giving it to yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself is a way of getting stuck in your addiction. Essentially with self-pity you give your power away to your addictive urge. As a result, you render yourself powerless and unable to assert your will to say no to your addiction. Self-pity is a way of wallowing in the mud of addictive behavior and is a far cry from compassion.

Compassion is an act of self love. You can extend this love to another person. Depending upon how you were taught to handle wrong choices or mistakes, compassion may be more or less present. If you were shamed or excessively condemned for doing something wrong, you are more likely to have less compassion for yourself and more shame when you screw up. Likely, you will tend to judge others with the same harshness that you judge yourself.

In the same sense, if you were held accountable for mistakes that you made when you were young but not overly condemned, you learned to address the guilt of doing something wrong and moved through the experience with self-forgiveness and compassion. If this was a consistent experience, you learned to treat others with compassion and similar care that you learned to treat yourself.

The dictionary defines compassion as a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. It comes from the essential love toward self and life. Infants enter the world with that sense of self-love. However, environment can stunt or nourish the development of compassion.  So, it seems, that we are born with a certain amount of love for self that can mature toward compassion and love for others.

You would think that if environment is key to the development of compassion that those who grow up in a healthy environment would be the most likely the ones who would express great compassion toward others. Yet, some examples of individuals who express great compassion come from heartbreaking childhood experiences. You must factor in the unknown impact of resilience when measuring how well one is able to cultivate compassion in life and throughout the world.

Resilience is difficult to measure. Yet, we all know of people who are tremendous achievers in life but who have come from a storied home life of heartache and desperation. This can be true of compassion as well. Some people come from backgrounds that would give them every reason to be suspicious and hateful toward the world around them, yet they demonstrate an unusual depth of compassion toward others. Yet, others who have less chaos and misfortune in their upbringing demonstrate far less capacity for compassion. Resilience becomes an X factor in predicting who and how one might develop compassion in their life.

All this being said, I tend to agree that compassion is a skill set that can be cultivated. Compassion matured can take the form of consideration for another. It becomes a sort of art form. It can be likened to a parent who knows when to apply the strict letter of the law to a child who misbehaved or when to go easy. Consideration comes into play when there might be every reason on the surface to judge or condemn but one might choose to show compassion because of a sense of understanding and cultivation of compassion toward the wrongdoer. This use of compassion can only be developed through practice and every-day application.

Compassion in recovery does engage in training and conditioning. Whenever an addict screws up, self-condemnation is a first response. It takes practice to apply compassion while not making an excuse. Those who discipline themselves to internalize a compassionate response become more resilient toward bringing themselves back to the center of their recovery.

Compassion is a life skill set that is born from self-love. The paradox in recovery is that this valued component in recovery often accelerates as a result of personal struggle through heartache and tribulation. Compassion can be like patience which is learned through times of frustration and not getting what you want. The more you lean into the discomfort and disappointment of not having what you want the more patience grows. People who express great compassion have struggled through chaos and crisis at some point in their live. They know what it is like to hurt and from their own pain they reach out to care for others who hurt as they have.

In closing, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said it well when she penned “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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