“Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce.”
—Brené Brown in Rising Strong
When I picked up her call, Kira’s voice was thick with tears. Kira, one of my best friends, is the mother of 4-year old twins, working full-time, and grieving a recent divorce—which means she’s also learning how to be a single parent.
"I lost it tonight,” she confessed in a rush. “The kids pushed me over the limit at bedtime. I yelled and then I started sobbing so hard that I had to sit on the floor. I hate that my children had to see that. I’m so overwhelmed.”
I listened as Kira continued: “…but I work with a woman who lived through the Bosnian war, and she’s still smiling, so I figure I should be able to do this. I should be grateful and stop complaining.”
I'm not a parent, but I recognize the voice of this particular demon all too well. Your pain isn't legitimate, it taunts. Sorrow is a competitive sport, and you're a loser. Only when I'm upright again do I manage to tell that demon to take a flying leap.
Pain is the most common human experience, along with our bodies’ primeval appetites. From my own intimate history with sorrow, pain is also the human experience we most exert ourselves dismissing or secreting away—for many reasons, real and imagined. What a loss it is to diminish our sorrow or fear, rather than bringing it to the companions and helpers that we trust, and to the proving ground of vulnerability between us.
I believe that we’re all entitled to our pain—that there’s no hierarchy of grief or fear, in which someone else’s pain invalidates our own. If anything, giving voice to our pain metabolizes it; we come to hold it instead of it holding us. Better yet, sorrow is an invitation to recalibrate our hearts so that we can view one another with both more gentleness and a sense of recognition: You too? Me too! It's like a homing device, pinging out our longing for connection.
My wish for all of us wounded, scared human beings is that we remain watchful for those who would frame compassion as “a pizza with eight slices” rather than its true nature: mysterious and abundant; the place where we knit ourselves into each others’ lives; and evidence of our inherent wholeness.
Compassionate One whose arms hold the struggling single moms and everyone else too, may I never dole out my love in small slices, but instead draw from the deep well of goodness, empathy, and compassion that you provide to us.
(Erika received Kira's—not her real name—permission to write and publish this.)