I recently made a Facebook post posing the following question:
“Do you think it’s true that any behavior, when you know the story and lived context around it, can be understandable? Not acceptable, but understandable. Relatable. A potential gateway for compassion, even?”
During the course of a week, a handful of people commented with a variety of responses. Their reflections ranged from truly moving and heartfelt testaments to the power of compassion to the simple, “In the case of someone like Hitler, no”. I’m grateful to each person who had the chutzpah to weigh in. In this era of extreme hostility and rampant divisiveness, the question itself feels almost dangerous. To those who have been willing to engage it with me, thank you.
As you can perhaps guess, my answer to the question in my post is a resounding “yes”. Yes, I do believe it is true, that any behavior can be relatable and that it’s possible to meet the unthinkable with understanding. As an astute colleague of mine wrote citing Marsha Linehan, a pioneer of emotion regulating therapy, “All behaviors are caused”. In the words of another insightful colleague who responded, “All behavior is indeed understandable if we knew enough about the other”.
And yet, I feel the pain of the divide between my conviction in this truth and my ability to put it to practice on an interpersonal as well as collective level. Left to my own human tendencies, I often lack the capacity to tap understanding and find compassion for many things, both in the larger societal wounding and in my own autobiographical traumas. Over time, some of the sting of pain from my past has faded. But it’s clear to me that I haven’t rid myself of the hurt and resentment from my personal history, and that this colors the lens through which I see much of the behavior of others. I know I am not alone in this struggle.
I found a quote recently that gets to the heart of my thoughts on this matter. It reads, “The real flex is healing yourself without becoming like those who traumatized you”. I believe in my lifetime so far I have both partially succeeded and partially failed in this flex. Partially succeeded because I am not just the sum of my past. I am an unpredictable deviation from my trauma. An unexpected flourishing of beauty out of ashes.
I am also capable of hurting others the way I was hurt and in this way contributing to a cycle I so desperately want freedom from.
After a recent and volatile re-triggering of some childhood wounds I’d thought were more healed than in fact they were, I sought out a new therapist. She came highly recommended by a good friend who I trust. I even got lucky that she had a last minute cancellation so I could see her shortly after reaching out. Within the first fifteen minutes of our session, once I told her a short synopsis of why I called, she put her hand over her heart and said in her thick Iranian accent, “Your story is bringing my own story in front of my eyes”. However choppy her English, her words took my breath away. My pain was reminding her of her own. That intimacy was opening a floodgate of compassion in real time from her heart to mine. And she had the courage to name this to me. I trusted her immediately. I felt so palpably understood that my words, typically flowing, ran dry. I sat and breathed in her care. And something settled.
“Your story is bringing my own story in front of my eyes”.
I have spoken publicly before about my commitment to being in therapy. Having had the privilege of receiving skilled attention and guidance from an extraordinary ensemble of healers over the years, I have learned that what makes therapy transformative lies in the client’s ability to care for herself the way the good therapists do, with patience, unconditional regard and compassion. To create the “internal therapist” and become both a source of that care while residing in the person who needs that care. Every major, effective therapeutic modality I know teaches a version of this. Dr. Susan Campbell, author and relationship coach, describes it as a “dual focus of attention”, as if watching yourself from a bird’s eye view. She writes, “It’s as if your awareness has two perspectives simultaneously. This enables you to hold space for yourself, to comfort yourself. This dual awareness is also the foundation for a more intimate or friendly relationship with yourself. (From Triggered to Tranquil, 2021).
This growth process, I believe, is the training for what it means to meet pain outside of us with something other than more pain. Contrary to most global military strategies, force, persecution and shame don’t work. If they did, I would be highly qualified, as my childhood was an excellent training ground in these tactics. But they just don’t. They breed themselves and perpetuate cycles of abuse and destruction, rather than interrupt them. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to see this clearly.
I’m coming to think that the operative question under my initial question is,”How do we find compassion for all of the parts inside of us that we want to condemn, shame and annihilate? How do we forgive the darkest parts of ourselves?”
Mystic poet Chelan Harkin recently published a potent poem that I believe offers a starting point. She admits that the thing outside of her that she would want to separate from – war, that most terrible of human creations – also lives in her. The first stanza reads:
As terrible as it soundsI understand the motivationsfor warThe willingness to do anythingbut go into my painThe desire to breathe fire
onto everything in my path
instead of staying with
the transformative pain and power
in the fire that burns inside of me
And that I believe is where we begin. By daring to identify internally the place where we possess inside what we want to marginalize, other, blame and condemn externally. That feels like a brave beginning.
I’ve come to believe that in order to cultivate peace towards our own internal warmonger and forgiveness towards our most transgressive parts, we are going to need one another – in a big way. I’m convinced this is not a capacity we can source alone. When I told my new therapist about my pain and she looked at me with eyes of such tender kindness, I got a taste of this potential. A glimpse of what it can mean to become more whole by borrowing the emotional agility of another until I can replenish my own reserves. Every time I dare to share with another the parts I would rather keep in the shadow and they are met with care and acceptance, I grow my capacity to “stay with the transformative pain and power in the fire that burns inside of me”.
I’m definitely going to need your help with this one.
I recently got knocked off my feet with the importance of this practice. Days ago, a truly beloved friend, a dance mentor, a companera and sister on the spiritual path, succumbed to a cancer that came almost overnight. Mati was only 57 when she died. I and so many others who love her are heartbroken. She was not seriously ill before she was terminally ill. There was zero warning. She lived her life fully, fiercely and courageously. Her death, during this time when I have been Sumo wrestling with the demons in my head, has multiplied my strength to keep fighting. Life is so damn precarious. Mati was a champion of truth. She fought fights I may never have the mettle to fathom. It feels apparent to me that a way to honor her is to continue to look bravely at the hurting places in me so that a better world can be possible for her descendants and those who are outliving her and won’t stop loving her.
One of the comments to my post came from a powerful local healer whose table I have had the privilege of lying on. She wrote, “There is something I am trying to understand but cannot yet express around the process of releasing the past and creating opportunities for trust to be regained”. So many of the comments were deeply moving. But hers especially stood out because of her willingness to acknowledge how elusive it feels to cultivate understanding in the face of hurt while simultaneously how vital it is to reach for it.
The capacity to console ourselves when we feel inconsolable, apply tenderness to our aching hearts and retrain our nervous systems to feel safe even when our histories taught us otherwise feels bigger than the individual human holding capacity. Feels alchemical. Feels like the intelligence that is only possible when two or more are gathered. Feels like Love in its grandest, most divine form. I believe we need to reach for something beyond ourselves right now – from the vantage point of that bird’s eye view or even God’s eye view – not just our human tendency to fight and defend when we are scared. Something bigger and on a different level than the one at which the problem was created.
Charles Eisenstein, visionary author and speaker, cogently articulates the far reaching impacts of actively looking for someone else’s humanity across the divide between ourselves and others. In his essay, “The Field of Peace,” he writes:
Every time we let go of self-righteousness, we strengthen the field of peace. Every time we resist a call to arms, every time we put ourselves in another’s shoes, every time we act from the knowledge that we are not separate, every time we look for someone’s humanity and divinity when it hurts, we tilt the course of distant events into alignment with those choices.
It is hard work, because war thinking is a deep program in the human mind, carving up of the world into us and them, friend and enemy, hero and villain, good guy and bad guy. So quick is the reflex to see someone I disagree with as a monster, to write them off. When I do that, they often fulfill my expectation.
It is hard work. The invitation to fight, condemn and judge is deeply seductive. Resisting the seduction feels like it takes all of the discipline and faith and muscle we might ever cultivate in a lifetime of spiritual practices. I have failed many times. It’s so much easier to lash out.
But it just doesn’t help. It degrades everything that is Good in the world when we point a finger and say, “I could never be like that. You are the problem”. I believe that the ability to look at others and say – You are of me – is only possible when we can hold our own totality with compassion. When we can stop exiling any part of our internal worlds. This is the miracle I am reaching for now and reaching for your help to make manifest.
Fred LaMotte, poet, adjunct professor of world religions and fellow Washingtonian, wrote a stunning poem called, “My Ancestry DNA Results Came In”. In it, he artfully revels in the discovery that he shares genes with every last wriggling creature on the planet – human, animal, insect and stone alike. The poem ends this way:
Admit it, you have wings, vast and golden,
like mine, like mine.
You have sweat, black and salty,
like mine, like mine.
You have secrets silently singing in your blood,
like mine, like mine.
Don’t pretend that earth is not one family.
Don’t pretend we never hung from the same branch.
Don’t pretend we don’t ripen on each other’s breath.
Don’t pretend we didn’t come here to forgive.
May we keep remembering that when we want to hurtle blame, we have a choice. It doesn’t have to go the way it always has. When we hold ourselves with compassion – a compassion that may come from others’ kindness or even a divine, more spiritual source of inspiration – we liberate our capacity to become something better than has come before.
Image by the artist Hannah Yata at https://hannahyata.com