(This article is by guest writer Leigh Anderson. For a short bio, see below.)
When we look at what it takes to have compassion for others we must first look at what it means to be a compassionate being. That starts with self-compassion and our own well-being.
My mother has dementia. We’ve known it for the past five years, but it’s only been in the last year and a half that the symptoms have affected her enough that she is currently under hospice care in a nursing facility. I wasn’t sure what hospice care meant before, but was happy to learn that in her case it meant she would be getting extra care.
She’s chosen not to eat any solid foods (and I don’t think that was exactly a choice, but that is the way things are). In such a case the workers at the nursing facility contacted the hospice care system and after an evaluation they informed us that in their experience with this type of dementia there is not anything that the hospitals or nursing facilities could do, other than just making her comfortable. This didn’t mean that her regular care was going away. In fact, it meant that she would be receiving additional care and oversight from people performing hospice duties.
I feel compassion for the people caring for patients as part of their normal duties, but in times of a pandemic it is even more stressful for them. In his article “Facing Defeat and Despair with Compassion,”(1) Dennis Oliver talks about how in times of crisis we tend to see graciousness in those that serve others. I feel much love and compassion for the mother who took care of a husband, children and grandchildren all her life and now finds herself locked inside a body that won’t function, and a mind that no longer offers reliable information to her.
My father is in his later years and has chosen to hand over responsibility for my mother’s medical care to my sister with myself as her support. This has been a good decision because he isn’t able to adequately comprehend the Medicare and Medicaid requirements. I feel compassion and gratitude to my sister for taking on this responsibility. Additionally, we both live at least a hundred miles from the care facility and each of us makes the trip to see mom twice a week. The trip seems to get longer the more time passes.
The whole routine, going back and forth to the care facility, as well as the recent pandemic restrictions have put a strain on any kind of a schedule. I can get in meditation most mornings, and usually a gratitude journaling session, but I find it harder to be grateful and have compassion each day.
My father has a narcissistic personality. That wasn’t obvious to us when we were growing up, but it has become apparent as he’s gotten older and we have to deal with his and my mother’s health crisis. She is in hospice care, but he feels he needs attention too, so when each of us are in town he comes up with some reason that we need to tend to him. It makes an already stressful situation even more so as we try to spend time with my mother. I know I need to have compassion for the man who is losing his partner of over 65 years. And yet I must often force myself to feel that compassion in my heart.
I find myself feeling angry and resentful of his impacts, so I tell him less and less when I’m going to be in town. When I can sit back and breathe I do try to send compassionate thoughts his way. But it’s surface level compassion. I know I need to practice self compassion, too. That has become a harder effort. If I don’t feel love for myself and my perceived shortcomings, then I can’t truly have compassion for others because I tend to see their shortcomings and not their worth. This seems to be more true of persons that I have interactions with as opposed to strangers.
I used to think of self compassion as a necessary part of my spiritual well-being. I know that it needs to be included in my practices, but for the first time as I’m dealing with a personal crisis I find myself wondering if I’m being selfish. Part of that comes from dealing with a narcissistic family member and hoping that I’m not becoming that way myself. But I do have family members that I trust to give me honest opinions about what actions are a normal part of “taking care of myself” and when I may be going overboard. I haven’t gone to the other side just yet. At least not that anyone has told me.
It’s been quite an experience learning to deal with several crises at the same time and to do so with compassion for all involved. But the flight directive to “put your mask on first before you take care of others” comes to mind when I think about self compassion. I need to start more of my mornings with self-compassion meditations. Then I can direct compassion towards others if I want my emotions to be more authentic.
I will strive to use the loving kindness meditation more often during these times, and the forthcoming time of grief. May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May I be happy and contented. May I be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May I experience ease of well-being.
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(1) Facing Defeat and Despair with Compassion, published Feb. 22, 2019.
Bio: Leigh Anderson is the current Administration Director for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. After retiring from 30 years service with the federal government she spends time pursuing her favorite hobbies, including kayaking, journaling, trips to visit Texas wineries, and family outings. She lives next to a generous neighbor who allows her to indulge in a daily passion for walking miles through his forest (preferably with a canine companion).