Compassion and Shoes

Compassion and boundaries.  A friend put the two words together the other day.  I always placed them separately, opposed, unable to hold the same space.  And then I thought, they were flip sides.

Compassion necessitates boundaries. Boundaries enable compassion.

Because I had imagined myself the poster girl for compassion. Putting oneself in another’s shoes. To suffer with another.

And so I set off, wide open, to let other people in. Filling someone’s shoes and wearing them. Saving the suffering and the miserable from themselves. Rescuing them out of the pit or the grave, even staying there with them.   And each time someone needed a hand somewhere, I would say yes. And so lend a hand, bail out, and clean up the mess.

Just the same, one day you are unable to get out of sufferable aching shoes or miserable pits. As though you’ve managed to dig yourself a grave too. The depended and the dependent are both huddled in the corner, empty and vulnerable. Help less. You’ve fed her addiction. She’s fed off your sympathy. And, having worn her shoes far too long, you have become her. The rescuer turned victim.

That, or you resent kindness and charity. Your self-styled selflessness has left a void and your welfare tank is empty.  And so you decide you’re quite finished with saving the world. Saving the self is your new mantra. To cocoon inside your corner of the world, where you can have joy and bliss, and live and let live. You can justify it with “equanimity” at the far-left. Let everyone be, they have their own myths to unfold, and you do not have to be in it. The solitary, separate, unique self, should be apart from everyone else. There’s no need to step into another’s shoes.  My shoes fit me just fine. Selfless becomes selfish (tempting, but I am not going to write Oxford Dictionary’s newest word.)

You grapple with these extremes and yearn for a middle ground. You can’t do callous and indifferent. You’re supposedly hard-wired for empathy and no amount of cocooning will keep your mirror neurons from firing to mirror another’s pain. Except your tank is empty and you’re afraid you can’t survive another pit wearing someone’s shoes.

“Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other. ” –Rainer Maria Rilke

Look at that. Two solitudes, not one. There’s no stepping into shoes. No merging of selves. You meet, protect and greet each other.

And the mistake I had was that my self-styled compassion meant putting myself in shoes and walking in them.  And so you drown alongside in tears. And so you feel the pain, bear it, and then lift it off them too.   Let them into your sacred spaces (and some will live comfortably there.)

But you see, you can suffer with another without getting into the pit yourself. Bear witness to someone else’s pain, without becoming pain. Because the moment you lose yourself in the other, a hostage in that pit, you can no longer help. And the best way to throw a lifeline is exactly when you are outside.

Compassion demands boundaries.  Boundaries allow compassion.

And while we can withdraw sometimes to be by our lonesome, we can’t stay huddled up in blissful cocoons forever. The world will beckon, and that world is filled with people with shoes to try.  We inhabit the same space. And our paths, seemingly divergent, will always, at one moment in time, traverse.

And so, make your way, gaping wide open, letting other people in. Except, keep to your solitude. You are there to meet, protect and greet each other. Bear witness to suffering, to a destiny that is theirs, and then be a witness yourself. You will only see the other when you are not the same. Understand the life story without having to rewrite it for them. Behold their well-trodden path, without having to pick up after them, clean out the mess, or have them invade yours. Put yourself in someone’s shoes and yet not walk in them. Perhaps that is the secret to surviving someone else’s well-used shoes. Perhaps that is the secret to never having your compassion tank run empty.

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