When days are long and nights are disrupted and i’m tired to the bone I used to ask myself to choose between compassion and self-care. Well, still — if I’m not thoroughly intentional, my habitual response is to separate the two. If I don’t do it to myself, most circumstances or perhaps other people ask, encourage or pressure us toward one or the other.
Any people-worker would have the challenge. Not just missionaries, also non-profit workers, therapist, pastor, other healthcare workers! How about plain moms and dads? I think so.
I’ve come across the term compassion burnout. Made sense. Even if we’re doing decent self-care, what about when the compassion needs are way beyond average? Even with good boundaries, what about when grief presses in on basic functioning?
Last year I was very much in the “burnout” stage. I wondered about my inability to cope. Friends reflected back to me my hard-heartedness. Exhaustion, yes. Rage, yes. Compassion, what’s that? Somewhere during that time I came across the term self-compassion.
At first I reacted. My theology and worldview didn’t have a category for “self-compassion”. Compassion doesn’t come from a self. My personal self I knew to be entirely inadequate. Wow, I would sure be in trouble if that was my prescription. But what if self-compassion didn’t mean compassion sourced in myself?
So I reflected. Compassion is a response to pain. I certainly, it seemed, would be aware of my own pain. I have a responsibility in responding to my pain. My knee-jerk response was always to do some “self-care” – like physical therapy after an injury. The problem is that I had left it on automatic since, well, ever.
What had crept in while I wasn’t looking was judgement and independence. If I’m honest. Hurry up. Take care of yourself. You’re doing a bad job. Why did you allow yourself to get hurt? Even problematic circumstances wouldn’t trouble you so much if you could just take care of yourself. And get better. Just get it done. Really need to get good at this.
I never questioned this (judgmental) self-work. Religion never seemed to question this talk, and that was where I (understandably) learned to take care of my soul. A number of Biblical proverbs can be easily misread this way.
One good thing I received from my religion was a confidence in my connection with God – since after all He reached out to me first. And any reaching back to Him would be welcomed with delight. So I surrendered to the idea that I might be wrong about my first idea of self-compassion. And asked for understanding.
So I write to remember what I received from God. An image. From the Bible I’d known it since, well, ever!! I just never “saw” it!!
“Clothe yourselves with compassion” is the verse I memorized as a child. My old picture was of “ok, first, make sure you’re mentally prepared to be nice to people. Check. Thankfully that old, automatic picture of that verse is fading.
The new picture is Jesus giving me the softest, coziest, most comfortable sweater imaginable for the bitter cold of my soul.
It’s summer in Mississippi now. So now I’m thinking of the elven cloaks of the Lord of the Rings – they were warm when needed or cool in the blazing, sweltering heat.
Ok, what a relief. Self-compassion doesn’t mean compassion sourced in self. And compassion and self-care are not diametrically opposed. Neither are something special to “get good at”. But, oh, there is no habitual response to life allowed! Full engagement. It means self taking the next step – awareness – acceptance – responsibility – keeping in step with the Spirit of Life.
I still don’t have to “get good at” self-compassion. I simply become aware of the bitter wind of pain freezing my soul. Or dehydrating heat of disintegration sapping my energy. My responsibility is to reach up and take the sweater, the cloak. And wrap it around myself.