For years I cultivated compassion, not wanting to become desensitised to the suffering in the world. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the suffering around me and wanted to alleviate it wherever possible.
A couple of years ago I attended a seminar with Caroline Myss, a spiritual leader whose books I had been reading. I was prepared to be enchanted by wonderful truths pouring from her lips, but the biggest impact came from a minor incident during the day.
Caroline asked the audience whether there was anything they thought they deserved. One young woman stood up and said she deserved to be loved. In a scathing tone, Caroline answered, “No, you don’t! Who should love you? Why should they?” Then she carried on with her talk. A few moments later she stopped and looked at the woman, now sitting down again. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?” she asked. “Because I’m crying!” “Oh,” said Caroline and turned back to her talk, never to mention it again.
I was horrified. That poor woman! She had been set up to be humiliated in front of a crowd of people. She was crying and this supposedly compassionate person didn’t even care. I would never have done something like that.
But further reflection showed me what had gone on there. Caroline was exposing a basic spiritual truth: that we do not deserve anything and should be grateful for whatever we are fortunate enough to receive. Most likely the woman in the audience felt unloved by her husband or mother and felt sorry for herself. Caroline was telling her that her sense of entitlement was making her unhappy; not the other person. And the irony is that if she had shown compassion at that moment, it would only have confirmed the woman’s sense of being hard done by.
I realised then that we all have our own journey and that it is necessarily a hard road. Sometimes cushioning someone’s pain can prevent them from learning to deal with things themselves. This incident also released me from a sense of duty to carry other people’s pain. I still believe compassion is very important but I now know that I am not responsible for easing all the suffering I see.
As well as teaching me these important lessons, Caroline Myss gave that woman an amazing gift that day. I fully trust that after the initial humiliation, she emerged stronger and happier for the experience.