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Feelings of compassion are probably no strangers to most loving people, but I can still remember the exact moment when I came to the realization that compassion is profoundly painful. Sometimes true moments of compassion can be so unbearable that I think that many of us close our hearts just a little bit in order to bear it.

All of us being human have probably experienced compassion many times throughout our lives. I can think of many times that I have felt compassion for my fellow humans or even an animal. We have all felt that ache in our hearts when we see people suffering. That ache becomes stronger and harder to bear when it is a loved one such as our child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, or a good friend.

Sometimes it is easier to work really hard at cheering the person up, to try to solve their problem, or to try to change the subject and stop thinking about it than to allow ourselves to really feel the gravity of the pain that they are suffering.

I have found though that when we do allow ourselves to experience compassion in its fullness we connect to something more true and more real in our hearts. We learn something instantly in that moment about ourselves and about humanity. When we allow ourselves to actually feel someone else’s pain even for a moment we connect to the truth about their soul and our own. We connect to our very connectedness.

This is very different from feeling sympathy. I am talking about having a moment of actually experiencing someone else’s pain in its entirety, and this is not easy or fun to do.

I remember a time when I was about 17, and my mother had recently found out that my step father had been having an affair. She had decided to try to work out the marriage which did not work out in the end, but she was trying. Things were very uncertain during this time. Our lives were shaken.

My step father had been the source of extreme misery for our family. He was abusive, highly critical, negative, oppressive and wallowed in his own misery. He was messed up, broken, full of self-hatred, angry, bitter, and sick in many ways. And he took it all out on us.

But he had been the step father that I lived with the majority of my childhood. I lived with him from the time that I was 4 until I was about 18, and there were some good moments. There were some times that we laughed together, and there were a few moments that he surprised me with gestures of love, true affection, or kindness. This is a very confusing thing for a child. There is love for and even from an abusive parent in some strange way.

Well my mother told me that she was trying to work out her marriage with him, and she asked me to be kind to him (which was a strange thing for her to say I think.) Since I always tried to help my mother in any way that I could and had spent my life doing things to try to show her the love that I subconsciously saw that she never received from her husband…. like buying her tons of Christmas gifts, defending her in arguments with him, making sure she was okay, watching her back…etc….I got on board with her for this too.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to do this, but I got my step father a sweet card, and I wrote a pages long heart-felt letter to him. I do not even remember what it said, but it was something from a part of myself that is more loving than any other part of me because remember….he had abused and hurt me and my dearest loved ones repetitively. I left the letter for him to find.

I did not stick around to watch him read it, but later I heard him closed up in the bathroom sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. He was wailing, and I had NEVER heard this from him in my life.

At that moment I felt his pain in my heart in a way that I had never felt before. I felt his brokeness and all of the pain that caused him to treat us the way that he did. I felt his humanity, and I actually felt connected to him in a true way for the first and last time. The pain that I felt coming from his true self into my heart was one of the most unbearable feelings I have ever felt, and I could not even sit with it for very long. I had to consciously close my heart a little bit to it after a few minutes because it was so horribly painful.

It was in that moment when I felt true indescribable heartbreaking compassion for my abuser that I realized what compassion really is and the gravity of it.

I have never forgotten that moment because of the impact that it had on me and the immense lesson that I learned in that brief moment. Since then I have understood the reality of compassion in its truest form and the reality of its heavy burden. I have seen how I and others have to close ourselves from the fullness of it at times in order to protect ourselves from the extreme heaviness of it. I have realized that many times we mistake sympathy for compassion and that they are very different.

I have also realized that when we have the courage to keep our hearts open even for a brief moment to compassion in its entirety even with and especially with those who hurt us and perpetrate against us we learn lessons about the human spirit that we would never completely understand any other way.

I have been awakened to the fact that compassion is not about butterflies and rainbows like we sometimes like to think. It is hard. It hurts. It involves suffering, and it teaches us more about the purest and greatest form of love than most other things can teach us. And it is worth it.

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