(Reluctantly) Learning Compassion


I recently encountered this quote:

“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”

Rachel Naomi Remen, with thanks to Mary Anne Schleinich

Who can deny the truth of these words? Certainly not me. But the process of becoming more compassionate isn’t exactly easy, or fun. Furthermore, it’s not something one does or strives for, rather it just happens, and as the quote implies, being hurt may be a necessary first step. Of course, everyone has been hurt, and there’s nothing special or unique about my situation.

But, to take an example, I’ve always found romantic relationships to be difficult and baffling. I keep finding that either I have hurt my partner or they have hurt me, for no reason I can see. Parkinson’s has made this problem considerably worse. This is a part of my life that I “used to be ashamed of,” or maybe I still am. And ok, my difficulty with maintaining a relationship has made it possible to have compassion for others with the same problem. But I wonder, would I have been happier with a single, great relationship, even at the cost of not acquiring this compassion? A pointless question, no doubt.

This is also true with the tremor and general clumsiness I experience, as well as with the cognitive issues related to Parkinson’s that I wrote about last time. I find that I have nearly endless patience with people who walk with difficulty, talk slowly or take a long time to find words, or whose attention wanders. This isn’t based on any particular virtue on my part, rather it seems to arise naturally from the knowledge of what that’s like. Maybe a less pointless question is whether it’s possible to develop compassion without some kind of loss. I don’t know the answer.

Michael J. Fox likes to say that “Parkinson’s is the gift that keeps on taking.” I agree, the things one learns from Parkinson’s are gifts, but yes, these gifts are the shadows of what has been lost.