Tag Archives: compassion

Transformation

“That must be so difficult,” people often say when they learn I work at a cancer support center.

“It can be,” I reply.

Every day, people tell us of their fears and anxieties, stories of their financial troubles because of the cost of medical care and the difficult decisions they face regarding treatment options.

Where can they get money to relieve their financial troubles? Should they continue with treatment knowing it is only prolonging life for a short time? Should they try an experimental treatment when traditional options have failed?

Dealing with vulnerability can be very challenging and even difficult.

But my work can also be very gratifying.

I get to see fears and anxieties melt away when people feel heard and their concerns validated. I am privileged to watch people support one another and see them move from fear to trust, from despair to hope. Every day, I see transformation.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, I had a few “melt-downs,” moments when my patience ran out or my fears overwhelmed me. Sometimes I yelled. Other times, I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. Afterward, I felt guilty. Here was Jim, facing his death—and there I was, wallowing in self-pity. Remorse and shame engulfed me.

Then one day at the grocery store, I met my neighbor’s daughter who was caring for both her ill husband and aged mother. It must have been just after a melt-down, because I confessed my bad behavior. Delores waved me off. “It happens,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she, too, gets tired and frustrated, and how she, too, has been known to yell or cry.

“It’s normal,” She said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Before that encounter, I had felt like a terrible person, the only person in the world who would yell at a man dying from brain cancer. Talking with Delores, though, gave me a different perspective and helped me let go of the high expectations I had for myself.

I walked away from that encounter telling myself, “You are not Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” and then realizing that even Mother Teresa probably had melt-downs. We are all human.

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The value of sharing our human fears and weaknesses is not restricted to cancer care.

I have also seen it when adults walked into the literacy center where I worked in Pennsylvania, feeling inadequate and shameful because of their lack of literacy skills—and then meeting other adults are in the same boat.

I experienced it the first time I attended a gathering of adult children of alcoholics and realized I was not alone, that others understood my experience because they had gone through something similar.

Once that understanding of a shared experience happens—whatever the experience—healing can begin.

Admitting my fear, confessing my shame or giving voice to my secret can be cathartic and can lead to greater compassion—for myself and for others.

When has that been true for you?

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Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

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Becoming courageous

“I want to be you,” a volunteer at my work recently said to me.

“Me?” I asked incredulously.

I admire your courage and kindness,” she said.

Over the years, I have told other women that I want to be them. These are women who embody the virtues I aspire to—patience, compassion, kindness, wisdom and self-acceptance. I want to embody those same virtues.

So when I heard these words being said to me, I was surprised.

I suppose most of us carry around images of ourselves that focus on our insecurities, where we see ourselves falling short and not living up to our own standards, let alone expectations others might have. I know I do.God-wisdom-courageI used to move a lot and hanging curtains was one of the first things I did to help me feel settled into my new place. I remember after one move, a woman at work asked how I was settling in and I told her I had my curtains up so I was in good shape. “Who hung them for you?” she asked, knowing that I was single. “I did them myself,” I replied with both a tinge of incredulity that she asked the question and also a sense of pride. She considered hanging curtains rods a challenge.

But, I have been in my current house for five years and only last week put up the last of my window treatments. I was nervous about drilling into the plaster wall. Drilling into wooden window frames is easy, but plaster?

I googled installing curtain rods in plaster walls and then I called my brother for further assurance. He concurred with the You Tube video.

So I charged my drill, mustered my courage, measured and began. I even used the level to make sure the rod was straight.

The finished product pleased me.God-wisdom-courageWhy had I been so resistant? So fearful?Even though others may see me as courageous, I know my inner fears. I know how I can be paralyzed by the smallest thing (like putting up curtain rods).

When this paralysis strikes, I wonder if it is a matter of accepting my limitations or being challenged to overcome a fear.In my early thirties, my therapist encouraged me to do things scared.

Act as if… my therapist advised me. We had been talking about my fears, and there were many. He suggested I act as if I had no fears, with the idea that acting as if would lead to a change in behavior, that my fears would disappear.

I was doubtful, but it actually worked, and each time I did something that frightened (or even terrified) me, I gain confidence.

From another therapist, I learned is to ask, What is the worst that can happen? In most circumstances, the worst is not so bad. (In the case of curtain rods, it would mean some repair work before reinstalling.)

Doing things scared and weighing possible outcomes have helped me become less fearful and more courageous.God-wisdom-courage

 

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Walking with Jesus

I once asked a friend how often she thought about God. The question came out of my admiration of her—she seemed so peaceful and holy, and I figured it must be some kind of God thing.

“Throughout the day,” she said, and then she told me about her practice of intentionally bringing God into situations in her everyday life.

“How often do you think about God,” she then asked me. “Not that often,” was my reply.

I wanted to be more aware of God throughout my day and decided to adopt her practice of intentionality. I quickly realized that I needed to adapt the practice a bit. I am a very visual person, so it was easier for me to imagine Jesus walking beside me throughout the day.

Petition and praise became the two categories into which I slotted events as each day unfolded.

A cashier at the grocery store who seemed to be having a difficult day would elicit a prayer of petition. Or a mother struggling with a tired child or my own impatience. I would turn to Jesus and ask him to help.

Someone holding the door for me, children playing happily or a kind word would bring forth a prayer of praise and gratitude.

Each person and every event took on a different hue when I turned to Jesus standing beside me and tried to look at each person or event through Jesus’ eyes and with his compassion.

Where I might have negatively judged someone who was being rude, Jesus invited me to imagine that person’s back story and consider what awful thing might have happened to make that person that way. I started to pity people who were angry or mean, reminding myself that I would not want their lives.

Judgment faded; compassion increased.God-kindness-loveWhen I went to work for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I learned of Mother Cabrini’s practice of living from the heart of Jesus. She had exchanged her heart for the heart of Jesus and saw the world through the eyes of Jesus’ heart. Even more intimate that visualizing Jesus standing beside me was visualizing my heart swapped out for Jesus’s heart.

As the days, weeks, months and years passed, the practice became more a part of life, and I found myself more aware of God.

When my mother was hospitalized last month, one of my first thoughts was, God has her. The medical people could do what they could and I can do what I can, but ultimately, I know that God is holding my mother, and that awareness brought relief and peace.

Reflecting back, I realize how much the years of practicing bringing Jesus into everyday circumstances has become a part of my life and how much more quickly I can let go of worry because I know I am not alone in any burdensome situation. Just as God has my mother, God has me and that is the safest place I can be.God-kindness-love

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Atonement

I am not particularly political, but my car radio lured me into listening to parts of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I heard Kavanaugh boast about coaching his daughters’ basketball teams and his Jesuit education. Ward Cleaver came to mind as I listened to his self-portrayal. Perhaps I even rolled my eyes once or twice. I understand presenting oneself in the best possible light, but no one is that good, I thought.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityOne day, I heard that the girls’ basketball team he coaches came to the hearings—in their Catholic school uniforms. Really? What is he trying to prove? I wondered.

And then came the allegation about a sexual assault incident from his high school days.

And I began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand. Was that perfect father portrayal really just a charm offensive?God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityLast year’s disclosures by women who had been sexually assaulted made me think of the men who had not yet been named, those men who knew their histories and were now squirming as they waited for the shoe to drop.

I have to admit that I took a great deal of delight in knowing that those men who once dominated were now vulnerable, having no idea if or when a voice from their troubled past would intrude into their idyllic present.

Is Brett Kavanaugh one of those men? Was all that blarney about being so good just a smoke screen in anticipation of someone stepping forward to reveal his past?

And here is where I run into a dilemma. I am not the same person I was when I was seventeen or even twenty-seven. I made mistakes, and I own that. I sought help to deal with the issues that plagued my young life and have learned from my mistakes. I have atoned for the sins of my youth through prayer and service, and I don’t want to be judged by mistakes I made out of my brokenness and ignorance.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI wonder if Judge Kavanaugh has taken responsibility for the mistakes of his youth.

And I wonder what he would do if one of the girls on the team he coaches or if one of his daughters was sexually assaulted.

Would Judge Kavanaugh take the view that “boys will be boys” and minimize the damage done to the girl?  Would he counsel the girl to shake it off, as if it were a basketball foul?

Would he advise the boy to deny all accusations? Or would he counsel the boy to take responsibility for his actions, knowing that dark deeds that are locked away can be uncovered at any time, and that a life built on secrets can easily implode.

The man who assaulted me apologized a few weeks later. Two little words—I’m sorry—and he walked away free and clear. I was left with damage that took years to heal, and only now can I see that for all the harm he caused me, at least he owned it.God-forgiveness-vulnerability

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Turning loss into gain

vulnerability-God-healingMy young life was chaotic, to put it politely. I survived it, though, by creating a shield around myself. I was a living papier-mache project, and each chaotic event added a layer to my armor until my coat was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.

All along, though, God kept trying to break through my protective shield, kept trying to prevent me from walling myself in. But I was resistant. Closing myself in felt safe; opening myself up created anxiety.

During my twenties and early thirties, I came to understand the disconnect between my tough exterior and fragile interior. Good manipulators saw my weakness and took advantage; what felt to me like a true connection and perhaps even love was really exploitation.

My coat of armor was not really protecting me from further harm; it was just keeping out the healing love of God.

Through all those years, though, God did not give up on me.

In my twenties, I kept getting invitations to attend retreats and workshops where I would hear about God’s desire to love and heal me. I collected buttons with slogans like “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “God don’t make junk.”

I memorized Scripture verses that reminded me of Jesus’ desire to love and heal me. I commiserated with St. Paul and the thorn in his side. My past was always with me, a thorn in my side reminding me of my shame.

Mary Magdalene became my soul sister—if Jesus could drive seven demons from her and she could come to know herself as loveable, surely he could do the same for me. I was desperate to escape the self-loathing I felt, that certainty that I was damaged goods and good for nothing.

But after a childhood spent creating a thick protective shell, breaking it down was neither easy nor quick. Messages on buttons could not effectively undo my deeply-held belief that I was broken, unfixable and unlovable.

Over time, though, Jesus was able to break through my defenses. As a child, I had seen Jesus as another innocent victim. Every Palm Sunday, I cried out with him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Poor Jesus; poor me.

At some point, though, the connection clicked—Jesus was an innocent victim, and he did understand my brokenness. I realized that what I had told myself was self-protection was really fear—fear of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear that what had happened to me in the past could happen again.

I came to see that unless I peeled off those layers of protective armor and touched my brokenness, I was just setting myself up to be re-victimized. I also saw that what I considered thorns were actually invitations to growth.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Prayer to Redeem Lost Time rings true for me:

While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that you, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.

With God, nothing is lost; everything is possible.vulnerability-God-healing

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What I am learning from my tears

The other morning at prayer, these words from Ezekiel 47 caught my attention:

I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple….Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow, their leaves shall not fade nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.vulnerability-God-compassion

Lately, I have I have been very emotional, and I am unable to stop my tears from flowing.

I grew up in one of those families where crying was discouraged; tears usually elicited a response of, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Then, in my twenties, I worked for the FBI where agents used to tell me to “toughen up.” This was usually in response to a mood-shift after my oh-so-easily-hurt feelings had been hurt. I would sulk and feel sorry for myself, but I would try not to cry.

My years at the FBI did toughen me up. I tried to keep inside any emotion that might make me look weak or vulnerable. Being tough (or at least looking tough) was my goal, so I swallowed my emotions.

At some point in my life, though, I realized the pendulum had swung too far and that I had developed an impenetrable shell to protect myself from criticism that I was weak. That shell helped me feel invincible and kept me from feeling vulnerable. It also kept others away.vulnerability-God-compassionOne of the good things about getting old is that I can look back on so many opportunities God has given me to move against my resistance to being vulnerable. God invites me not to toughen up but to soften up.vulnerability-God-compassionAs I read the words of Ezekiel, I wondered if my tears are the river that gives me life.vulnerability-God-compassionRecently, as I watched a high school volleyball game, tears started rolling down my face. The same thing happened a few weeks earlier at the Motown Museum while watching the movie about the early days of Barry Gordy and the high school students who would become his stars.

Reading a novel about Puritans in Connecticut, tears welled up and spilled over. Watching television, seeing a rainbow, spotting a butterfly—I have no idea what will set off a tearful episode.

I try to let the tears flow freely. I want the emotions to be set free—rather than tamped down or stifled.

My recent tears tell me that my protective shell has a crack in it, and I want to widen that crack. I want to acknowledge my fears and insecurities. I want to be softer. But it is not easy.

My early training sets me up to be afraid of showing my vulnerability, and fear can be a powerful paralyzer.

But, God keeps prompting me—with the words of scripture, my memories and my tears. I know I that I can sit with the discomfort of feeling vulnerable and not be overwhelmed.

Let the tears flow.vulnerability-God-compassion