Three years ago, a friend of mine discovered that she had an autoimmune disorder. When she told me her news, I was sympathetic. I’ve done my best to be supportive as she has gone through more testing, gotten more information, tried supplements, and struggled to get her diet right for her body. Even as I thought, “I’m so glad I don’t have to eat that way!”, I’ve had deep compassion for her. A malfunctioning immune system is a serious problem.
Unfortunately, it is also an invisible one. My friend can be having a bad day, and the rest of the world can’t tell unless she speaks up. Sharing our vulnerability with others is scary and feels dangerous; what if someone takes advantage of our confessed weakness? Because her difficulties can’t be seen, few people realize the challenges she faces. The only way she gets the help she needs is if she has the courage to ask for it.
Being compassionate always boils down to one thing: being able to understand on some level what someone else is going through. I’ve lost loved ones, so I can commiserate with those in mourning. I’ve put a beloved pet to sleep and understand the heartache of friends in the same situation. I have some idea what your breakup was like, because I’ve been dumped, too.
Sometimes just imagining something is enough: we see someone without a limb and for a moment wonder what it would be like to live without an arm. Instantly, we can feel compassion for this person.
But imagination is rooted in vision. We see things with our minds, project the variables onto our own lives, and imagine the results. What about the things we can’t see? Many illnesses are invisible, just as many tragedies are carried around in our hearts rather than on our sleeves. A person can look fine to us and be working through the greatest challenge of their life.
This is why I promote the idea of kindness so often. We don’t know what other people are struggling with. We don’t know how hard their day has been. We don’t know what it is like to live in their skin. Better to be gentle with them because they are human than to assume they are “just fine” and can take rough handling.
Maintaining a high level of compassion for another takes energy, and can be hard to sustain. No wonder one day’s vow to do whatever we can for someone in crisis can be forgotten the next. It seems even more natural not to fight for that understanding, especially when the situation is alien to us and can’t even be seen.
In February, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. I am now following the very diet I was so grateful I didn’t need. As I come to understand the changes I must make because of this diagnosis, I am reaching new levels of compassion for my friend.
I thought I understood before. I feel like I really understand now. But in fact, I still don’t understand, not truly. She has different AI disorders than I do, so her symptoms aren’t exactly the same. Her choices and needs are different from mine. There are things she can eat that I can’t, and vice versa.
Today, I have compassion for those who don’t understand hidden vulnerabilities, the way I didn’t understand what my friend was dealing with before I got my diagnosis. It’s the easiest thing in the world to feel compassion for those we are like. The trick is to be compassionate about the invisible, unimaginable troubles of another.
Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about vulnerability. To see a list of other posts on vulnerability and compassion, click here.