What Do I Need? part 2

Self-compassion is really simply compassion, and exercising compassion strengthens it. The experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give care. As Kristin Neff says,
"The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give to others."
That so many Americans don’t have much available for others is a problem – and it seems to be a growing problem. Along with the disintegration of trust in each other and the institutions through which we build the collective good, has come a diminution of public compassion. We see this in resistance to masks, and vaccine hesitancy. I want to share with you the beginning of David Brooks’ column from two days ago. (He does use a mild swear word, which I will leave in.)
“Could today’s version of America have been able to win World War II? It hardly seems possible. That victory required national cohesion, voluntary sacrifice for the common good and trust in institutions and each other. America’s response to Covid-19 suggests that we no longer have sufficient quantities of any of those things. In 2020 Americans failed to socially distance and test for the coronavirus and suffered among the highest infection and death rates in the developed world. Millions decided that wearing a mask infringed their individual liberty. Experts now believe that America will not achieve herd immunity anytime soon. Instead of being largely beaten, this disease could linger, as a more manageable threat, for generations. A major reason is that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is reluctant to get vaccinated. We’re not asking you to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima; we’re asking you to walk into a damn CVS.”
Between World War II and today we became a country that no longer, by and large, understood “what do I need” to be the same as “what does the greater good need?”

In The Atlantic last week, staff writer Derek Thompson wrote that he contacted people who were refusing to get a Covid-19 vaccine. They said things like: "I’m not especially vulnerable." "I may have already gotten the virus." "If I get it in the future, it won’t be that bad." "The risk from an experimental vaccine seems greater than the risk from the disease." Even if all of that were true, which it isn’t, they are thinking only about what’s right for them as individuals. They aren't thinking about anyone but themselves.

Thompson wrote:
“I made this case to several no-vaxxers: Your grandparents, elderly neighbors, and immunocompromised friends will be safer if you’re vaccinated, even if you’ve already been infected....This argument gave several no-vaxxers a bit of pause.”
It apparently hadn’t occurred to them that they might have any responsibilities to the nation and the most vulnerable people in it. A lot of Americans of all races and genders are not accustomed to thinking in terms of compassion – for themselves or for others. They do guard their individual interests, but not in a self-compassionate way – more in a defensive, self-protective way – a way that sees the self’s interest as separate from, and sometimes competing with, other interests instead of seeing that, truly, the self IS others, and there is no separation between others’ interests and one’s own.

Amit Sood, MD, is author of “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness.” Writing on the Mayo Clinic website, Dr. Sood says:
“Compassion can make you happier and healthier. Compassion is your ability to experience others' feelings — from joy to sorrow — with a desire to help. The pursuit of compassion may make you happier than the pursuit of happiness. Giving or receiving compassion can: Boost your bond with others; Make you healthier (the reason: the happier you are, the easier it is to commit to healthy habits); Improve your mental health by decreasing your stress levels; Temporarily shift your attention away from your own challenges and put things into perspective; Enhance your spiritual well-being.”
Dr. Sood concludes:
“The joy you'll feel after committing a random act of kindness will give you a sense of elation that money just can't buy.”
You may ask: What about compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is an issue among caregivers and can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. This is the flip side of the separation coin. If your concept of self and other is that they are separate, and you focus only on self’s needs, that’s a problem. But if you assume there is separation and focus only on other’s needs, that’s also a problem. Compassion toward all beings includes you – you are not separate.

With self-compassion and authentic, sustainable self-care daily, there is no compassion fatigue. There may still be plain, ordinary fatigue. Issues of overwork might remain, and I know the pandemic has made for a lot of very overworked caregivers, and I sure hope they get some easing of their workloads soon – just as I do for every overworked person.

So when social justice comes up, when there is talk about the suffering of people oppressed and treated unfairly, traumatized, exploited – not merely dehumanized, but de-animalized – objectified – utterly excluded from concern and respect -- do you think, “Ugh, this just makes me feel bad. I don’t like feeling guilty. I want my congregation’s worship to be spiritually satisfying to me -- to give me uplift and inspiration. That’s what I need.”

OK. I believe that that is what you need. There is nothing more uplifting and inspiring, nothing that satisfies the spirit, more than compassion: the active wish that a being not suffer, and a feeling of sympathetic concern – empathy with a desire to help. With compassion, we want to know where the pain is. We want to know the details of it – where it came from, how it manifests, how widespread it is – so that we can more skillfully respond.

On this mother’s day as we think about and honor mothers and mothering, please call to mind the image of a compassionate, skillful mother. I hope that you had one, or have one, though I recognize that not everyone did. This mother finds a wonderful joy in mothering. Maybe it is mothering under challenging conditions – like Imani Perry, in this year’s Common Read, Breathe, when she writes:
“But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one, beautiful.”
Call to mind your image of a compassionate, skillful mother. When she hears that one of her children is hurting, she does not say, “I don’t want to hear about that. That’s a downer.”

She knows that sometimes children experimentally complain – just probing to see what response they might get – but she also knows that a complaint that is persistent, consistent, and insistent indicates a real issue. When there is a real issue, she wants to know all about it: How did this happen? How bad does it hurt? She wants to hear about it, learn about it, so she can best respond. I’m not talking about some extraordinary, almost superhuman mother – this is just ordinary, everyday parenting. And if she herself, it turns out, has been doing something that causes or worsens the problem, she wants to know all about that, too, so she can see what to change.

The call to social justice is like that. It is the call to compassion, and there is nothing that brings greater joy, or is more inspiring and uplifting, or is more spiritually healing.

We ask, “What do I need?” Compassion, I believe, is what we all need.

May our need be met. Amen.

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