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The seeds of compassion

We all need that one person who will bear witness to our suffering and remind us that we are not alone. 
| Photo Credit: Getty Images/IStockphoto

Many of the children I meet have experienced being left out, misunderstood, or bullied because they are different in some way. Some of them though emerge wiser from the experience.

In his early teens Anant, who has ADHD, used to have enormous conflicts with his father. One day when he was 17, he said to me, “I really get my dad now, he is so much like me. We both mean well but we are impulsive and lose it, and then regret it later. It’s not like we don’t fight anymore, but now I get that it’s not about me.”

My friend’s 16-year-old told me about her incredibly boring History class. I was trying to commiserate with her by being critical of her teacher for not making the class more engaging, when she said, “It’s hard for her you know. She has so many students and so much to finish in the next couple of months. In the days when she didn’t have the time pressure, she could be fun.”

I had expected frustration and eye-rolling from these teenagers, but not compassion for the adults in their lives.

This isn’t always the case. We have all met bitter and angry adults who rail against an unjust world. They seek vengeance because they have been wronged, and their anger seems justified. Yet, it makes me wonder about the kids who don’t end up that way. What is different about these kids? Temperament? Family and school environments? Nature or nurture?

There are no simple answers, but there are some things I have learnt through my own journey over the last year. I have had a mysterious painful illness over the last 18 months that defies medical explanation. After telling me that my tests were normal and that I should therefore not worry, the kindly medical professionals had nothing to offer. I found myself lurching between two extremes. I would either grit my teeth and soldier on with work and leisure, pretending I was okay and could do everything that I had done before. Or I would become overwhelmed and devastated by what had become of me, wallowing in the sea of suffering that I found myself in.

But in the last few months when I have had enough time to take care of myself, I find myself coping better. I pace my work, take naps, pause to notice what is happening in my body, and treat it with kindness. Then I find I can notice others. I look around the doctor’s waiting room, and I see the tense bodies and anxious expressions. Everybody has something going on. Children too need time and distance to make meaning of their own difficult experiences. When they have been cared for in their distress, they can then recognise it in others.

To offer up pain as the grist to the mill of wisdom, you need one other thing. It is the presence of a caring person or community. When I was young, I reached out for my mother whenever I was sick – either physically, mentally, or virtually. I remember her checking in on me as I lay curled up on my bed in foetal position, dealing with painful period cramps. She’d come softly into the dark room and gently tuck a hot water bottle under me. She’s older now, and needs me more often than I need her, so my mind no longer conjures up that image. I look to my sister, my friends, and sometimes my children to comfort me. I reached out to them often during my illness. I had to first overcome my inner voice that said, “You are turning into one of those whiny old ladies who talk about their illness all the time.” I turned the volume down on the voice and called upon my tribe. Then I allowed myself to sink into their caring like I would into a warm bath. I was amazed at the tenderness that was poured into my depleted reserve of well-being.

The wise young people I meet have in common that one person in their life — a trusted family member, friend, teacher, or therapist. In their book What Happened to You, Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey explain how the presence of one caring adult in the life of a child can mitigate the profound effect of trauma in childhood. So it is with all of us, all our lives. We need that one person who will bear witness to our suffering and remind us that we are not alone in our pain. I have learnt to listen and not offer solutions as my young patients observe their pain from a distance. The only thing I can teach them is the language to be kind to themselves instead of critical. Then I watch them opening themselves up to the possibility that they will not just get through, but perhaps grow from the pain.

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