A friend was camping in the wilderness with an avid outdoorsperson, when one night as they sat by their campfire, they heard branches snapping and a large animal approaching from the wooded darkness behind them. As my friend prepared to flee, his companion rose and also ran – but straight into the woods, not away, moving directly and swiftly toward the unknown.
I think of this story when considering how differently each of us reacts not only to signs of danger but also to suffering, which can be a form of danger: some of us running or looking away, and others stepping in closer to compassionately assist or comfort, to witness or companion.
Moving away from suffering is an understandable response – to seek our own comfort or safety or both. But moving toward it, hearts not calloused but made tender by compassion, is the most basic requirement for relieving suffering. Being willing to suffer with one another – which is the definition of compassion – is the first step toward easing our own suffering and that of others. It is also key to our survival and our thriving.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted that the first sign of civilization in any culture is neither a tool nor technology. Rather, she said, it is found in evidence of a healed femur. The longest bone in the human body takes a very long time to heal. She pointed out that an animal with a broken leg cannot survive, being incapable of escaping danger or finding food and water. So the discovery of a healed thigh bone in the remains of any early people means that someone stayed with the one who was injured, helping them and caring for them long enough for their recovery to be complete.
Compassion is the ability and willingness to move toward and stay with those who are suffering. People we know, people we don’t know, other beings or even the earth. It raises some difficult questions, such as whose suffering am I willing to share and for how long? But as Lao Tzu insisted, it is closer to home and more straightforward than that. He named it as one of his teachings’ three treasures: simplicity, patience, and compassion.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
You return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
You accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
You reconcile all beings in the world.
Is it possible to be compassionate toward yourself? Is it possible to be compassionate toward anyone or anything else if you’re not? Some say compassion begins in the tenderness that develops in our own injuries, and how we care for and carry them. In her poem, “Jerusalem,” Naomi Shihab Nye tells a story about her father as a boy being struck in the head by a rock. The injury created a place where his hair would not grow. Then she observes of all of us, “Each carries a tender spot: something our lives forgot to give us.” And that tender spot, the poet suggests, can become a place “where hate won’t grow.” Call it kindness. Call it benevolence. Call it care. Call it compassion.
In this time of so many injuries and so much suffering, can we make of the tender spots in our own hearts and lives places where hate won’t grow? Where fear does not harden us? Where worry and anxiety won’t take hold? Can we move compassionately toward our own suffering and that of others, understanding how intertwined all suffering is? Is it possible that cultivating compassion for ourselves will create more compassion for others? And that letting ourselves be moved by compassion for others might be the best path we have for healing our own wounds?
Drawing near to suffering with our hearts open is not easy. But when we move closer, the tenderness that grows is a softening to rival the earth in spring. Fertile ground for compassion. A new season in which healing can take root. A fire to warm the heart and hands as we open both to ourselves and others. It is more than our human civilization that depends on this. The deep suffering of our earth and all beings on it awaits this awakening of the human heart. Are we willing to compassionately move closer to the suffering of the earth, to stay with it, to care for its recovery and participate in healing injuries we have caused?
To explore these questions further, join me for a guided writing session, “Compassion: a kind of fire.”
Reprinted from the April issue of CommUNITY.
 Tao Te Ching, #67, trans. Stephen Mitchell, NY: HarperCollins, 1988.