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On Doing Compassion in the Wake of Tragedy


“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It’s a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.  Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

-Pema Chodron

You know how sometimes you read something that is so incredibly timely that it just stops you dead in your tracks and takes your breath away?  Like, “I’m reading THIS particular thing right NOW at THIS particular place in time?  How uncanny is that?” Well, that happened to me this weekend while reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.  I picked up the book where I had last left off, at the beginning of a section in which she talks about compassion and our responses to other people’s suffering.

This past week has seen a lot of suffering in the news, specifically coming out of Orlando, Florida, site of both the deadly and cowardly massacre at Pulse Nightclub and the alligator death of the toddler at a Disney resort.  The internet has been full of people’s responses to other people’s suffering. Some have been beautiful, but some have been more than a little disheartening.  There are some who have been quick to blame and shame the parents of the child who was killed.  I heard a friend say that people within her own family were discussing what they would have done if they were at Pulse Nightclub, how they could have stopped it or at least protected themselves, that it never would have happened to them on their watch.

Almost immediately as I started reading Dr. Brown’s thoughts on compassion, she launched into an explanation of the concept of compassion that knocked the breath right out of me.  It spoke directly to the heart of the blame game types of responses. She writes:

“If we take a closer look at the origin of the word compassion…we see why compassion is not typically our first response to suffering. The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, meaning “to suffer with.”  I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain- ours or someone else’s- is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame.  Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.”

And there you have it. It makes perfect sense. The blame game is self-defense.  If we can make ourselves believe that the death of that sweet baby was due to some egregious lapse on the part of the parents, we don’t have to let in the realization that IT COULD HAVE BEEN OUR VERY OWN BABY.  If we can make ourselves believe that the hateful massacre at Pulse could have been thwarted if someone had just been smarter, or worse that it was somehow deserved due to the lifestyle and love of the people there, we don’t have to let in the realization that IT COULD HAVE BEEN US OR OUR FRIENDS OR FAMILY OR CHILDREN OR SPOUSES OR  PARTNERS.  The absence of compassion is an act of self-defense, plain and simple.

Dr. Brown also quotes American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron when it comes to the bravery of the opposite of the blame game response, which is compassion:

“When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us.”

That is the place from which I have seen those in my tribe operating this week.  They have bravely moved into the daring practice of compassion.  They have allowed themselves to confront the frightening reality that IT COULD HAVE BEEN OUR BABY ON THAT BEACH, IT COULD HAVE BEEN US OR OUR LOVED ONES IN THAT CLUB.  They have stood shoulder to shoulder, both in person and in thought and prayer, with those who are grieving and it has been beautiful to witness. But there is pain and fear and rawness in those places and it makes everything just a little harder on the heart.  Which is probably why the blame game responses are so hard to take.  We are a raw nerve, those of us who are living with the realities generated by compassion, and so we have little space or tolerance for the opposite response.

But if there is one thing that the events of this past week have taught us, it’s that tolerance, compassion, empathy and unity are desperately needed on all fronts.  When you really think about it, compassion and connection were just as much the targets in that nightclub shooting as were the people the shooter gunned down.  He wanted not only to take lives, but to rip a hole in the fabric of love and divide us as a people even more. Fear and hate were the goal.

So in honor of those who lost their lives, let’s ALL see if we can’t dig a little deeper into compassion in order to love one another better. If I’m someone who finds myself jumping to the blame game response, maybe I can bravely take a look at my heart, and see if maybe I can walk into the fear just a little in order to find some compassion. If I’m someone who does the hard work of compassion, maybe I can extend a little of that compassion to the blame gamers as well, knowing that their response comes from the same fear I feel in my own heart, and respond with empathy rather than a pointing finger. We will nudge others to compassion more effectively with love than we will with hate.

But above all, let’s honor the Pulse victims and their families and the parents of that sweet baby by coming out of this stronger and able to love and understand one another just a little bit better than we went in.  Let’s respond to hate and fear with love and compassion.  Let’s give ourselves and one another grace and space in our fear and pain, but also challenge ourselves to dig deeper and love better in the midst of it.

Compassion. Empathy.  Acknowledgment of our shared humanity and how we are all far more alike than we are different.  Let’s do it, people. Go, team humans!




Wife and mom in the Pacific Northwest, dreaming of a world with no mom left behind.

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