I have long felt empathetic to the plights of others. In addition to seeing someone’s suffering and wanting to alleviate that suffering, I took it as a burden to actually alleviate the suffering. This may be compassion and (sometimes) mercy, but it is an unhealthy, self-centered enactment thereof.
You see, I wanted to fix things. I wanted to say the exactly right words or do the most impactful thing because I wanted to fix it. I wanted to be part of the solution. And that would sound like wisdom but for the reality that true compassion does not focus on self – whether by my fixing things or my words. And true mercy requires a keen focus on the other person.
At a very low point, on the verge of diving back into the deep chasm of depression, I decided to *do* something. I was already seeing a doctor and a counselor. But I was desperate not to go back down the rabbit hole. I downloaded a couple of apps to my phone: Stay Alive and Mood Tools (and later, when I began feeling positive things again, Mood Log). I decided that I needed to do whatever it took to stay above that chasm. In part, that meant tuning out others and their problems. In part, it meant using whatever tools I could find for free, since I am not working a paying job.
One tool I found was Celebrate Recovery. I was terrified. I went surrounded by people who loved me, and I still wanted to flee – just leave them all stranded and drive away forever. That night, I attended the newcomers class and learned the rules. I thought I might never volunteer information. The next week, in small group, I realized a powerful new tool: listening with compassion without picking up the burdens set down by others.
The rules against cross-talk allowed me for the first time ever to just listen. I was not scanning for ways fix, ways to help, words to say that could heal or convey my empathy. I wasn’t preparing arguments or advice in my head. I wasn’t listing suggestions in my mind to share as soon as the talking stopped. I was looking at the person, mask dropped, listening.
The compassion remained: I felt their suffering (in whatever small part) and wished I could alleviate it. The mercy had no place because these people and their problems demanded no response from me, not to punish or to harm or to help.
The middle of the circle filled with burdens others discarded. And I didn’t pick them up. I left them there where they belonged, on that carpet to dissipate.
This carried over for me. It helped me to become a better layer down of my own burdens. It helped me to receive others’ feelings, worries, burdens without shouldering them. I could hear people without risking my own fragile emotions. That gave my emotions time to heal. I am no longer raw, constantly ripping open wounds to pour others’ salt thereon.
I’m still passionate. I still feel for people. I still look for opportunities to practice compassion and mercy. But I don’t acquire burdens. It’s not my trade.
In the months that have passed since those first CR meetings, I’ve been renewed in countless ways. I’ve been reinvented.
It doesn’t mean there are no more bad days. It doesn’t mean I can let down my vigilance against relapse into depression and anxiety. It simply means I have more resources every day to deal with life every day. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.
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