Community Magazine

What Compassion Is

By Amanda Bruce @RecoveryisCake

compassionWhere along the way do some of us lose our compassion?

Is it a survival skill, a method of hardening by which things can be fit into simpler boxes?

I cannot.  I feel everything.


Yesterday, I went home, and walked to my childhood bedroom.  Across a narrow hall, lies my half-brother’s room.  My brother is 48 years old.  He has bipolar disorder with psychotic features.  For anyone who knows anything about mental health, this can be a debilitating diagnosis.

This is how debilitating.

I caught a glimpse of him as I walked by.  One split-second screenshot that summed up the chance he’d been given in this life.  He laid on a mattress on the floor, covered by a blanket, and his eyes gazed at me vulnerably before he realized it was me.  Or maybe he knew it was me coming.  Who knows.

He has made many a mess, as all of us have, and many poor choices.  Of course he has accountability, as do you and I.  But here’s the thing.  Simple logic tells me your chances of being functional are going to be greatly reduced when, as a baby, your mother leaves to visit a friend, and returns to find out you sustained a closed brain injury under the care of your father.

He does not work, and has little to no friends.  He, at times, has become violent and threatened the neighbors due to his persecutory hallucinations, and I still think he’s doing the best he can.  So was his father.

I am told to leave this on a daily basis.  I am told this is not my problem.  I am told to take care of myself.  I am told to box this away.

How the fuck do you box an image of a lonely, cold, mentally ill man on a bare mattress away?

The answer is this: unless you’re drinking, or starving yourself, or using some other inane behavior, you can’t.  If you have any compassion in your bones.  So you show up to work, you continue to pay your tens-of-thousands of debt you spent not to end up like this, you continue to love others even when they hurt you, you love their every broken piece because they are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  You listen to clients yell at you at your job, because they’re simply working out an old emotion on you, and you patiently explain to your daughter that she doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you when she gets upset with you.  Patiently, 98% of the time.  And you do what you can to keep feeling and to hold that sad image in your mind and not fall apart yourself.

What would happen if we all tried to hold each other’s losses instead of responding with a “Well, that’s his fault”?  We wouldn’t have to do anything about them, we would just have to bear witness.  And grieve with them.

I have a hundred other stories like this from my life, and some of you probably do too.  A hundred other major heartbreaks that have the capacity to destroy, if we let them.


I make mistakes.  I do so on a regular basis.  Recently, I hurt two people I care about.  And it sucks sitting with that.  And I tend to beat myself up for anything less than perfect.

And then I remember the eight year old girl who was driven towards a tree, at last minute to be turned around, threatened with death.

And I try to forgive myself, because I’m doing pretty damn well for the girl who ran screaming from my childhood home.

That’s compassion.

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