Consuming Compassion

One of the first things we learn as science students is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Compassion is the equal and opposite reaction to human suffering. Whether it is Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, or a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, the post-tragedy outpouring of compassion boggles the imagination and dwarfs the evil. Compassion is our most human emotion and yet it is also our most spiritual. It truly is the image of God.

Compassion is something I have a lot of, because I’ve been through a lot of pain in my life. Anybody who has suffered a lot of pain has a lot of compassion.”

                                                                                                                – Johnny Cash

Over the course of history our societies and religions have sought to abolish human suffering. But without pain and suffering, would compassion exist?

When you think about it, suffering comes from four primary sources:

1. Our fellow humans                          Crime, war, neglect, poverty, starvation.                       (the largest category)

2. Our physical limitations                 Accidents, illness, and the inevitable                                                                                                  deaths of those we cherish.

3. Nature                                                Natural disasters, extreme weather, an                                                                                            ever-changing planet.

4. Ourselves                                          Desires, fears, doubt, selfishness.

Buddhists believe that through devout Buddhist practice one can eliminate suffering. Imagine a world where we all grew to that level and wiped out our evil deeds and inner demons. It would be a peaceful, amazing place but we would still have suffering from our physical limitations and nature. Suffering is an integral, unavoidable part of life. Evaluating our lives (or God) based on freedom from suffering is very similar to evaluating our children’s schools based on the quality of their recess periods. The most important, most unforgettable lessons in life are a direct result of suffering.

Dr. Viktor Frankl developed his theory of logotherapy while suffering in a concentration camp. His profound belief was that we can achieve true meaning in life in three ways: through great love, through great work, or through great suffering. Personally, I believe that great suffering creates great love/compassion which in turn produces great work. Thus some are blessed to experience all three in their short time on this earth.

Both Christianity and Buddhism share the concept of renunciation: that to advance to a higher spiritual state and eliminate self-inflicted suffering, we must renounce our earthly desires, possessions, and ways. What they don’t mention is that in the aftermath of great suffering your old desires and life become quite meaningless all by themselves and you become obsessed with a need to help others, an all-consuming compassion. It is a great gift from God that allows us to heal ourselves and a very small part of the world around us. Thus a champion, an activist, or an occasional fanatic is born. It is a very meaningful vocation, but being the change you wish to see is not easy. Changing established norms is frustrating and often depressing when progress is ever so slow. Witnessing cruelty and indifference is much harder for a compassionate being. Well-meaning friends and relatives advise you to just get over it and return to your old life, not realizing that God has sent you down a new one-way path and U-turns are not allowed. Yet infrequent rewards do come at the most unexpected times, from the most unexpected people.

To confirm my thoughts I drafted a simple “test question” and sent it to some people I have met who have profoundly suffered in a wide variety of ways. The question was, “What differentiates the inspired wounded from the bitter wounded?” These are their amazing responses:

Helen from North Carolina:

“Interesting, I don’t think of anyone I have met as bitter.  Some of them are very cynical, however.  Almost always, that is based on experiences of being lied to and deceived in a manner that is quite calculating.  Some of them are profoundly disabled and waiting to die from a system that seems indifferent to their injuries and refuses to give them meaningful medical treatment.

That’s what I see.  It’s very frightening.  And yet I don’t see anyone who has given up on the hope – however faint – that someday things may be better.”

“It would be hard to do anything else,” says Helen of her ongoing patient activism. “You’re sort of driven by the Furies.”

Kathy from New Zealand:

“What differentiates the Inspired Wounded from the Bitter Wounded?…For me it was self love – the decision that this did NOT have to be a tragedy, that I could create something positive out of it. From that it simply followed that bitterness would eat ME alive and would be certain to make it a tragedy.”

Kim from Minnesota:

“I loved the inspired wounded vs. bitter wounded.  I often ask myself this too. What makes someone bitter as is evident by my mother-in-law.

For me, it’s my strong faith.  I remember sitting on the floor after Woody died grabbing my heart crying over and over, ‘God take my pain and use it.  It does me no good.’   Never did I imagine this was the course that it would take, but it has helped me tremendously make peace with my husband’s tragic death.

Also, when we were throwing Woody’s ashes out overLake Michigan, a red bible with gold letters, ‘The Holy Bible’ floated right as my brother-in-law and I were standing at edge of the boat wondering how we got here.  Ever since then, I have to believe there is a greater purpose for my life (and Woody’s death).”

Neil from Colorado:

“Here is my best shot on this question. The inspired wounded have a reason for living.  They have found a context for their suffering which gives their lives meaning.  Their suffering is not in vain.”

Nicole from Colorado:

“Personally I believe that both the inspired wounded and the bitter wounded share the same amount of mental and emotional intensity, however I think that this intensity originates from two very different sources.

It seems the inspired wounded go through a mental and emotional process that helps create an attitude where they no longer view their selves as a useless victim and now see their selves as a representative of suffering who has overcome such pain.  With the strength and sense of fullness and I emphasize fullness because they elicit an understanding of nobility which allows them to motivate change in others who have faced tragedy.  They can guide people to a path of reverent emotions.  Whereas, the bitter wounded draw from a mental and emotional state of emptiness that essentially impairs personal growth.  They feed such perceptions that they lose sight of self worth and become unaware of how valuable they could be to others.  While remaining in this state of selfishness they slowly self destruct.

I think it’s safe to say that when one does undergo an experience of affliction and has to endure suffering you should view it as a building block in life, a new phase of existence that is just beginning.  Not seeing it as leftover pieces of ruin from your once sound entity.”

Susan from Chicago:

“I agree with all of the comments and would like to add that I often see ‘productive’ patients as well as ‘destructive’ patients.  I believe part of the differentiation is the availability of pathways to patients to make a difference.  I have seen patients evolve from very angry to productive when given a chance to be involved in creating solutions or even when they get a chance to tell their stories.  Our system is so very closed that it breeds patients who get stuck in bitterness.  So, I am hopeful that we can all together co-create a healthcare system where patients are indeed welcome to participate.”

Mathy from Maryland:

The Inspired Wounded takes what God has dealt him/her and moves forward. Although it is too late to change the life direction of the wounded, that person moves forward in a proactive way to ensure that others will not be subjected to the same pain. If there was no warning prior to the person’s pain or loss, then that person will go to great lengths to prevent the same wounds from happening to other innocent people by making sure that their warning is heard loud and clear by as many other people as possible. The bitter wounded take a ‘Poor Me’ approach and either do nothing, withdrawing from the world as they knew it, or get by on the sympathy of others. These people never get over being the victim and want to be pitied, accepting that change will occur because they have been wronged, but make no personal contribution to improve the atrocities. They are correct in their assumption that life is not always fair, but do nothing to bring about positive change for themselves or others. They will frequently try to jump on the coattails of those promoting positive change and expect that glory. Their bitterness creates a downward spiral for others, not only in their immediate families, but in their communities. They may end up being alienated because no one knows what to say to them.

I am happy to say that I am an ‘inspired wounded.’ Nothing will bring back my little girl, but it feels good knowing that by being a voice, I have played some small part in creating a safer, healthier outlook for children.”

 Kate from California:

“Ordinary people can accomplish the extraordinary by focusing on what they have, not what they don’t, what they want, not what they don’t want and what they can do, not what they can’t.”

Diane from South Carolina:

“1)     The difference in my mind is simply getting to the place where you want to SERVE more than you want to stay angry!

2)      What helped me, was the fact that watching Willie die, was beyond my ability to fix it so to speak, all I could do was ask God to help him thru it peacefully and have someone there to keep him company – so that he didn’t have to cross that threshold alone. Willie was one of a kind.

Bitterness eats away at the individual(s) who is bitter about anything and everything; I don’t’ have time to be bitter, I still get angry at times, I still cry at times and there are times I want to break dishes or what ever – but my place is here on my knees begging my heavenly father to please protect the patient next in line right now.”

Michael from Maryland:

“Even the ‘inspired wounded’ have a measure of bitterness. The inspired are usually more educated on the cause and are therefore more focused on how to fight. Also, while I believe that the pain is always there, time helps make it a little more manageable. But even achieving great success in the fight does not remove the pain and some, sadly, will remain in their bitterness. There is much more that could be said on this profound question.”

*****

A year ago I looked at inspiration versus bitterness as an either/or situation, but after talking to many survivors I believe it is a process much like grieving that begins with shock, moves into anger, and eventually can become inspiration. It is not a linear journey as we often get into circular patterns of bitterness and inspiration. It is a very difficult journey shared with many others.

“People are wonderfully complex and absolutely unique, and thus work through suffering and loss in a wide variety of ways. There is no one right answer for it is a personal journey on a dark uncharted path without a compass or a guide. We all wander off the path but eventually we find the light.”

                                                                                                                – Viktor Frankl

Dr. Frankl also felt that the challenge in this life is to live our thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper. I assure you that the champion/heroes above do just that every day!

“Pain provides the opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency!”                                     

                                                                                                              – C.S. Lewis

All-consuming compassion is all that really matters in this brief experience we call life.

Kerry O’Connell  1/28/08

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About Kerry O'Connell

Kerry O'Connell is a civil construction project manager and a member of the Colorado Health Facility Acquired Infections Advisory Committee. A committed patient safety advocate, he calls for restoring empathy and compassion in health care. He became a Numerator in 2005.
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