“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” ~Steve Maraboli
My fourth grade teacher was named Mrs. King, and she was a no-nonsense, fairly stern presence who enforced the rules and kept us kids in line. I was a timid kid who wouldn’t have dared to break rules anyway, and I assumed that Mrs. King didn’t like any of us, especially not me.
The only time we left Mrs. King’s classroom was to have our hour a week of “Music,” which meant trouping off to a downstairs room that contained a piano and a slightly manic woman who played us old folk songs to sing along with, like “Waltzing Matilda” and “Sixteen Tons.”
One day in music class I transformed into a bad kid. Instead of quietly following the rules, I made cat noises during the songs. I poked other girls in the ribs. I loudly whispered forbidden things, like “Linda is a peepee head.”
I don’t remember even wondering why this transformation had happened to me. It just happened.
As we trouped back upstairs I felt defiant, but when I heard several of my classmates telling Mrs. King about my behavior, I began to deflate. “Ann was bad in music class,” one of them said. “She was meowing in the songs,” added another.
“Ann,” said Mrs. King, “please come with me.”
I was struck dumb with terror. Now I was going to discover what happened to bad kids. I didn’t know what it would be, but I was sure I wasn’t going to like it. Shaking, I followed Mrs. King out into the hall, and into the tiny teacher’s lounge. We sat down.
“Ann,” she said. I didn’t dare look at her. My heart was pounding. What was she going to say about my misbehavior? What was my punishment going to be?
The silence stretched on, and I realized she was waiting for me to look at her. I dared to peek at Mrs. King’s face, and I was astonished. I had never seen such compassion.
She said, “I know your dog died…”
It was true. A few weeks before, out on a walk with my beloved dog Trixie, I had let her off the leash, and she had been hit by a car when running across a street to rejoin me. My parents had quickly bought me another pet.
There were no models in my family for allowing feelings to emerge. I remember being mystified when I saw my brother briefly weep for Trixie—and he hadn’t even been there when she was killed. I hadn’t been aware of feeling anything at all.
In the teacher’s lounge with Mrs. King, under her kind gaze, my eyes filled up with tears. I nodded. Yes, my dog had died.
“Maybe you would like to write a story about your dog. I know you like to write. Maybe you could give it a different ending if you want.”
I did write that story, but even before I began, the shift had already happened. I had my self back. It was okay to feel sadness and shock.
There was room in the world for my feelings, because someone with compassion had seen them.
Having feelings in response to events is normal. When we can share those feelings with caring family and friends, it allows the feelings to go through a natural cycle of change.
Understandings surface: “Oh, now I see what bothered me so much.” Our circle of support strengthens. After a while we feel refreshed, stronger, ready to go on.
Many people, though, grow up, as I did, in a family and a culture where feelings are not welcome. Feelings are embarrassing, or they show we are weak, or they are something we “just don’t do” and nobody talks about.
In some kinds of families, feelings are actually dangerous. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
When we repress and deny our feelings, we cut off a natural process of healing and self-understanding. When that avenue is closed, what is left to us is “acting out”—being “bad,” being depressed, addictive behavior of all kinds.
Many of us deaden our feelings with unhealthy food, drugs and alcohol, video games, overwork. At some level we feel deeply out of balance, but we suppress that too.
This can lead to a feeling of being inwardly at war, trying to stop whatever it is, feeling ashamed, yet finding ourselves still doing what we don’t want to do.
What can change this is a process of bringing compassionate understanding to our warring parts, a process I call Inner Relationship Focusing.
First, slow down. Pause and make contact with your body.
Use this kind of language to describe the inner war: “Something in me wants to eat potato chips, and something in me says that that is disgusting.”
Then say hello to each of the parts you have identified. “Hello, I know you are there.” (Notice how that already shifts how all this feels.)
Next, assume, as Mrs. King did with me, that there is some life-serving reason why each part is behaving as it is.
Lastly, ask each one: “What might you be wanting to help me with?” Wait for the answer to come from inside. When an answer comes, let it know you hear it. Don’t try to make it change. Change comes when something you feel is deeply heard with compassion.
I am so grateful for all the ways that compassion shows up in my life. I have learned that every part of me is trying to save my life. And in bringing compassionate inner listening to my warring parts, I have healed from writer’s block, addictions, and social anxiety, to name just a few.
And I never cease being grateful to Mrs. King, who showed me that day long ago that someone can look past outer “bad” behavior to the worthwhile person inside. A deep bow to you, Mrs. King.
Helping hand image via Shutterstock