Carrying the Weight of Ourselves: Compassion and the Divine Art of Kindness
I am riding to plague again.
Sometimes under a sooty wash
From the grate in the burnt-out gable
I see the needy in a small pow-wow.
What do I say if they wheel out their dead?
I'm cauterised, a black stump of home.
Not so long ago, I had 86 year-old Alf in to cut a lesion from his shoulder. Alf is my idea of gracious old age - deep respect and real joy burning in his blue eyes as he spends everyday in service of someone else.
Things seemed to go very well with the procedure and Alf fell asleep while I worked. As I finished up, trimming and tucking my edges, Alf woke and made a strange declaration. He had been dreaming, he said, of an incident at the end of the War when he was assigned at age twenty-one as a sniper in Gibraltar. Guarding the harbour, he had been ordered to fire on a sailor whose craft had breached a strategic position. He had hesitated, and his sergeant had pressed him to take the shot.
"I killed him, I'm sure," said Alf. "A boy my age - I saw him fall dead into the sea."
Then graceful, radiant Alf broke into floods of tears.
"I am sorry to cry, " he said, "but I have been dreaming of the pain of that mother whose boy I shot and what she carried, and if anything was able to repair it?"
We shared a thought about the weight of life to be carried in struggling to be good and happy. He smiled his eyes again and left.
I have been troubled often in recalling Alf's story and what I think it tells us about carrying the weight of ourselves and working at happiness, holiness and kindness; the daily balancing act of bringing - dragging - the raw stuff of our humanity towards divinity. How that takes a daily act of faith; of fidelity to living compassionately.
The salient wisdom flowing out of Alf's story and the unspoken, transcendent experience that his life has become in redeeming his own narrative offer a potent reminder that if we are to manage the lumbering weight of ourselves, if we are to find our feet despite the numbness, enmity, dissatisfaction, brokenness, separation and fatigue in our complicated lives - let alone in the lives of those for whom we care - then we must embed compassion in our dailyness and ordinariness, down amongst our very matter. To know deep satisfaction in ourselves demands that we develop a contented, unconditional focus on the well-being of others; a disposition for kindness from a warm, alive, open heart.
Suzanne Aubert, who recently updatedis about to update her status to 'Venerable', nailed the attitude when she enjoined her sisters to; "Be easy of access. Receive others amiably. Have a heart ready to devote itself." But how to have such a heart so disposed amongst the clamour and shambles of ourselves fronting up at home and at work?
First, begin in contemplation. Compassion begins in practising being still and being present. Experiencing real presence requires a kenotic self-emptying - a preparedness to sit within the tension between disturbance and joy and practise forgetting ourselves; letting go and letting God. Being present, meditating and mindfully attending to breathing - shifting and sifting the weight of our very human selves - allows us to be buffeted about by the divine.
The effort required is a detachment from our own weight - our faults, our inability to reconcile and forgive, our old hates: in short, it is a letting go of our resistance to grace. The foul weight of resentment, numbness, and self-hate closes us to the possibilities of compassion (first, to ourselves). When we are unbound and more able to forget and forgive ourselves, God knows what compassion and abundance might flow into our divisions and our engagements.
Teresa of Calcutta wryly observed:
"People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centred: forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives: be kind anyway."
Her words highlight for me the unease between carrying the cross-bar of ourselves and embracing the extraordinary lightness of being that opening abundantly to others can bring.
On a similar note, a good friend of my mother's told her at her dying:
"I've always believed that people are sacraments: - Be an outward sign."
Fidelity to living compassionately - as blue-eyed, deeply-loving and serving Alf has illustrated - offers us a means to open to the abundance and possibility that might break in and deeply disturb our tired humanity to show us divinity. The Dalai Lama, quintessential example of living graciously and warmly in the liminal space between disturbance and joy, reminds us that kindness is everything. We are invited, quite simply, to be an outward sign of this material.
Dr Bernard Leuthart is Clinical Director at Waiwhetu Medical Group in Lower Hutt.