For a long time, I believed that there was only so much compassion to go around.
If I asked you to think of a watering can, what do you see? Perhaps you conjure the picture of a lime green plastic or speckled tin vessel filled to the top with brassy hose water, a remnant of childhood and chores. On any given day, there will never be more water in that watering can than there is today. It can only water so many plants. Capacity is fixed. Limited. Scarce. I thought compassion was constrained like the water in this watering can.
If humankind was a garden, I saw the expansive, sprawling field of beings desperately in need of water. And here I was, a tiny sapling aching to grow, in deep thirst, but aware of my smallness. Any drop of water that went to me, meant a drop of water not going to all the others in the garden, who needed it so much more than I did. How selfish would it be to take even one drop of that water for myself?
I remember as a child visiting a cider mill and being entranced by the water wheel that turned slowly, lazily even, on the river next to the mill. Mouth speckled with cinnamon sugar donut, I’d imagine what would happen if I climbed to the top of the brick barn and poured a barrel of water into the wheel. How fast could this wheel turn, how rapidly would the river beneath it move?
The only way to make the water wheel turn faster is to pour into the wheel first. We are actually quite similar to the water wheel; compassion is fueled by self-compassion. The more you pour into yourself, the faster the wheel turns, and more energy is created. Compassion begets compassion.
There is a term called comparative suffering. This flawed idea proposes that suffering is subjective, that what I am experiencing isn’t real or valid because other people have it worse. We think we shouldn’t give ourselves care for how we are hurting, because other people are suffering “more,” and there is only so much compassion to go around.
But telling ourselves that we shouldn’t feel a certain way does nothing to alleviate our feeling of suffering or help us take care of others. Rather, it shoves down our experienced emotions under the tight lid of shame. Numbing, we are disconnected from the very real human emotions that we all share that form the basis of connection and compassion. Judging our suffering helps no one, not others and not ourselves. It is rooted in the idea that there is only so much care to go around. We need to fundamentally reimagine our beliefs about the nature of compassion.
What I know now is that compassion does not exist in a fixed capacity like the watering can. Compassion is a self-replenishing water wheel. The more compassion I pour into myself, the more compassion I can pour out to other people. The great watering of our collective garden begins with self-compassion. With courage, we are able to pour into ourselves the love and care we need, so we can show up and pour out for other people.
Somewhere along the way, I started learning that the most radical act of compassion I could give others is to start with myself. I needed to treat myself with the same level of care and forgiveness I was giving out. Before I asked, “What do you need right now?” I could ask, “What do I need right now?” We can only listen to others to the extent we are listening to ourselves. And so began the lesson of my lifetime. The same soothing, dignity, empathy I was giving the people I love, was exactly what I needed.
I, too, could be someone I loved.