There I sat, a week before Christmas in a crowded emergency room, a thorn in my flesh.
The thorn wasn’t only figurative. I had a nearly inch-long piece of pine buried deep in the meat of my thumb. Wear work gloves, kids.
I thought the splinter would work itself out in time, but after a few days the injury turned breeding ground, and a nasty infection doubled the size of my right hand into an almost comical red balloon.
The pain kept pace with the swelling, going from nuisance, to distraction, to all-consuming.
The others in the waiting room had their problems. One of them coughed like Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, toward the end, in Tombstone. A couple of others had given into sleep, upright in their chairs, arms folded. One woman yelled into her phone about how much longer she was willing to wait before she changed her tune.
A little girl, ten or eleven years old, had created a nest in a chair out of her coat and a dirty blanket. She was wearing mismatched pajamas, which I took to mean she’d left her house in a hurry. She got up from her nest to ask a hospital security guard behind the counter a question.
“Can you check if my mom’s ok?”
The guard asked for her name, poked a couple computer keys, and said there was no update.
“When will I know if she’s ok? Because I’m scared. I’m never away from her. We’re always together. Will you know if five minutes? Six minutes?”
The guard was kind, and assured her that when there was news she’d have it. The little girl reiterated her fears and her being totally unaccustomed to not having access to her mom. After finally accepting there was no way to get this guard to know things he didn’t know, she climbed back into her nest, crisscross applesauce.
Ten minutes later, she went back to the counter and repeated every bit of this.
I started to say something to the anxious child, but a thought pushed forward in front of that sentiment: the all-consuming pain of my hand, which I was now holding in front of me like a lobster claw, was all I cared to care about. I didn’t think those words, exactly, but today they reflect the sense of the limited goods which I felt I had. Secondary thoughts about the guard being there and drawing an income helped me rationalize my decision not to act.
But I know this trick. I have written about this trick. I have given presentations about this trick.
The trick is this: we self-prioritize to the degree we suffer, but often we self-prioritize way out of proportion to our suffering. Who am I to judge another’s pain and its proportion, let alone what they do—or stop doing—because of it? Please note that I’ve confessed to the plank in my own hand here already, so understand I offer this while mindful of the very real pain we all experience as human beings. However, I observe that many of us seem to believe all discomfort necessarily disables compassion. We’ve have lost our faith in the ability to do good even when we’re not at peak performance ourselves. My hand was bad. The surgery I had later that day was painful enough to make me welp the words “what the hell are you doing in there?” But in that waiting room I was knowingly leaving the little girl less attended to because of what I gently suggest might have been a bit of survivalist bullshit that I felt myself choosing:
If I give you my energy then I won’t have it for me, and I need all of it now. You can have some later, when I am comfortable again.
It wasn’t just the pain, but I was experiencing dread about limited goods in the universe. How can I give away what seemed taken from me as I sat there with my throbbing clown boxing glove hand? A grown man with a splinter and a heavy dose of out-of-proportion self-prioritization, I told the voice of compassion within me that it was a liability.
I don’t feel shame about this as much as I have a reinforced awareness that many of us might be good people who’ve reduced our goodness to latency, believing that our lives consist of navigating a perpetual emergency room and we’d do better if we were better. True as it is that we’re often in real pain, struggling to regain equilibrium and peace, it’s also often an unchallenged exaggeration that keeps us cordoned off from one another until some idyllic other circumstance arrives where we can finally be there for each other without any redness or swelling of our own. In other words, we’re putting on our oxygen mask first, but waiting til our breathing has been healed before we feel capable of helping anyone else.
But when is this moment exactly?
When will our bodies and our minds and our circumstances be tuned precisely enough for us to be as kind and generous and forgiving and considerate and available and inclusive and dependable as we wish to someday be?
The carrot of our available kindnesses seems for many of us to be stretching further and further away on the stick of eventual relief. The gods of this age do promise us relief in exchange for our devotion. Soon, and very soon. We’ll have more time and money and heart, maybe next year! Relief is coming, and then you and I will be able to do and be all those things we’re letting the security guard handle for now. But the gods of this age don’t sit on thrones. They’re on our calendars and deadlines and unreachable economic abstractions like more and gain and increase and next. And this is key: many of us bear not only real bodily pain, but also the all-consuming pain of disappointing these gods with our failure to be what we’re expected to be, and when we’re expected to be there. We are not yet enough. A little more, a little faster, and then we’ll have arrived, poised for greatness and even goodness. For now we mustn’t allow self-de-emphasizing compassion to complicate matters.
Think of what, and who, can be justifiably ignored as we push toward keeping our schedule to ward off the pain of being a pain. Think of the eye contact we can avert, the conversations we can dodge, until another time. I’ll get involved meaningfully later. Right now, however, I have to spend me on me.
There’s an experiment from the early Seventies where students were asked about what their religion meant to their identity. After this questionnaire, now conditioned to be thinking in their highest spiritual gear, they were asked to move to another hall across campus for another project. An actor was staged between halls, huddled in an alley, coughing and moaning. Most of the kids passed by without helping the man, despite their being bludgeoned on the nose with a real life Samaritan* scene. And the less time students were given to get cross campus, the less the number of students who stopped to check on the man or get involved at all. Because not being where you’re expected to be, falling behind the momentum of a crowd, or disappointing a professor (manager/boss/investor/constituency/parent/mate…) is a mental thorn that wishes well but can see no options but to keep its own schedule.
Compassion is a term comprised of two words; “Hurt” and “With”. There’s real opportunity in this etymology. Compassion is a way of turning our self-interest into a mobilized others-emphasis. In the very word it promises to make relational use of the very thing that tempts us to think of only me, until later of course. Compassion is the wisdom which employs suffering, rather than living trying to eradicate it. I’ll repeat an important point: there is pain in our lives that takes us out of the game. There’s no shame in this. Rest up, heal up, you deserve it. The important question is can we tell the difference between the pain that may legitimately exempt us from centering others for a time, and a mistaken habit of waiting until we are relieved of all hardship before we give ourselves away?
Because what if this sort of relief never comes? After all, when our splinters are finally removed, the car will break down, and soon a loved one will say something awful, then one will pass away, the roof will leak, then the parents’ divorce from 30 years ago will make a surprise appearance in current relational complexes, then there’ll be a pulled hamstring on a morning run, followed by a pay cut, then a lay off.
As my father would say, it’s always something.
Frankly, I wouldn’t recognize human flesh without thorns in it. Being human seems to be in the very least the tacit agreement to have 46 miles of nerves and 1000 fathoms of emotions and to face a million combinations of difficult circumstances while doing good to the humans in front of us as they do their damnedest to agree to the same arrangement. To have compassion is to renounce the gods of relief, even while hoping for some, and then go ahead and hurt with, opening ourselves to what relief might be had by providing it.
Who has the courage to model what it might mean to have pains that have yet to make contact with a remedy and still be medicine for others? Who might dare to go first in an inescapable cosmic gauntlet to heal while hurting? Who of us is willing to say, with our lives, in a lot of ways I’m not comfortable, but I’m ok with that. How can I help? My sincere hope is that I continue learning how to take good care of myself. I hope that for you too. And, I hope next time I’m in the presence of such need like that little girl in the waiting room, that I better recognize that I have two hands, and a heart capable of more love than I could ever use.