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What does Compassion Mean to Me? Eight Ways Compassion Turns a Concept Into a Personal Reality

Recently I was asked: What does compassion mean to me? Immediately my thoughts went to food banks, Mother Teresa, and the commercials that tug your heartstrings about poverty and starvation. I do think compassion is very much involved in those things, but the two words that tether compassion into something more personal are ‘to me’.

I remember moments when I felt compassion and acted. Maybe it was a holiday charity appeal, or being a caseworker with trafficked survivors, or even giving a knowing nod of ‘I’ve been there, I feel your pain,’ to the mother whose child was having a tantrum.

But where have I received it and where has it been meaningful in my life?

Compassion can come from the friend, the teacher, the co-worker, the neighbour, or the stranger, in large or tiny gestures, but it is only given when we are in a time of need. It is humbling to express that we have needs, and that we can’t do it alone.

From March 2020 through the summer of 2022, I experienced the ebbs and flows of Long Covid chronic illness. For much of that, my teen son also faced Long Covid challenges. I think compassion has hit a deeper place in me over these two years.

Here are eight ways I have recently experienced compassion:

1. Two weeks following the Covid virus onset, my family called the paramedics. My breathing had become challenging, and we had two sets of paramedics arrive. With hospitals overrun, they felt I would receive better care at home with medications. One concerned paramedic stayed an extra 45 minutes, ‘to make sure I was ok’ as she chatted about being a cat lady and put my terrified family at ease. She didn’t have to, but I think she knew she could bring calm by not rushing off to the next emergency.

2. In those initial months, my lungs were a mess. Nighttime was the worst as my breathing suffered the most when I tried to sleep. But, at the time, hospitals were overflowing and hardly any medical professionals could give me the attention I needed. An acquaintance of my husband was a respiratory physio working on the Covid wards. Multiple times he talked me through various breathing exercises, sent me video links, and taught my husband how to help when I struggled. It was priceless, very helpful guidance and I, in turn, wrote a blog I shared over a dozen times with those who also had breathing issues.

3. Most of that first year was brutal, as my son and I were housebound. I can’t tell you how many people dropped off paracetamol (aka Tylenol in the US) through our mail slot. Others went and picked up prescriptions. Several friends would text me when they were at the store throughout the week and insisted on buying anything I needed (esp. any comfort foods). Another friend surprised me by planting flowers in hanging baskets and by our front door so I could enjoy flowers all summer.

4. That summer, I received a note from ‘#29’. A neighbour named ‘Barbara’, a few houses down from ours, had seen an ambulance, offered her assistance and continued to offer throughout the following year.

5. Over the two years of Long Covid recovery, I received cards, flowers and small gifts. I appreciated them all, but I loved the personal ones, such as the letters shaped in the word ‘Hope’ that now sits on a prominent shelf in my office and the ‘cup of courage’ mug which I use with my coffee. Both reminded me that in my dark winter season of a chronic illness, there were glimmers of hope.

6. After the summer of 2020, I knew I needed professional help to combat the mental weariness of feeling physically miserable all the time. One counsellor I connected with online offered free weekly sessions. We still meet once a month online and I now consider her friendship and advice invaluable.

7. Sometimes ‘compassion from others’ means more when it is toward a family member. My teen son reminded me of the many kind nurses and doctors who took extra time with him, brought comforting words (though often couldn’t explain his odd symptoms) and made themselves readily available when we had concerns. Since he missed an entire year at school, many of his classmates included him in different ways. One collected messages from all his friends and made a t-shirt with classmates’ signatures, another made a care package that included a soft blanket and games, while others sent him jokes and light-hearted stories as they knew he also struggled emotionally with the isolation. Gifts of compassion for my son were also gifts for me.

8. Over the two years I struggled, I received numerous messages online, that I was in the thoughts and prayers of people all over the world (being a Brit/American means I know people in many places). My favourites were the videos full of encouragements friends sent just saying that they were cheering me on and they were in this with me. I’d often play those at 2 am when I struggled with fevers, breathing and feeling so alone. Those types of expressions of compassion helped me keep going in the confusing, painful times.

In all those instances, not one of those people was obligated or expected anything in return.

Looking up the definition of compassion, there are a lot of different but overlapping answers that include empathy, concern, sympathy, ‘suffering together’, or ‘a sensitivity to understand’. To me, however, it is when you acknowledge someone else’s suffering, hardship and plight and then are moved to action.

Years ago, a young couple I knew had multiple tragedies strike. A drunk driver one night killed their best friends, one of them was the younger sister of the wife. Several months later, they lost their baby shortly after birth. Pain like this is a hazy fog on a midwinter’s night: thick and tangible, where you can’t see your hands in front of you. Remembering back to that time, there were so many who rallied behind them and helped in the tragic aftermath. I cleaned their kitchen and made cups of tea while we sat, letting this couple decide if they needed to talk, cry, or just be quiet. They were my friends who needed compassion, yet, while I sat with them in the pain, I knew one day I too would need the compassion of others. No one is exempt from facing life’s challenges.

Pema Chödrön said, "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

Compassion stands beside those in the fog. It holds a small torch and offers presence.

Compassionate acts don’t need to be grand to be real and felt, but these gestures echo ‘I see you and I am here with you in this dark place.’

May we all be inspired, as a stranger, a neighbour, a relative or a friend, to practise compassion more frequently, so that others know they are not alone on their journey.

PS - In my Long Covid recovery, I wrote in journals and painted watercolours almost daily. I've recently launched a journal collection with my original art covers on Amazon. Please click here for more information.

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