I am blessed with a truly compassionate friend. She has known me for most of my life, and she still loves me (go figure). She is a great listener and an even better rememberer. You know what I mean; she cares about those details and why they are significant in my life. She is understanding and sympathetic, encouraging and challenging.
Last year, when my life hit a rough, jagged edge, my best friend was the first person I called. It’s a moment seared in my memory in weirdly vivid detail. I remember the light through the window and the fuzz on the fraying carpet as I lay prostrate on my bedroom floor gasping into the phone.
And I remember her calm voice, her slow breathing, her soothing words. It would be all right. And it was. Not that day, not the next week, not the next month, but gradually I regained the ability to look above the fuzzy frayed floor to the graceful light and vivid colors around me thanks to her calm, steady voice on the other line.
She had compassion on my pain. It would have been easy for her to give me pithy, quick remedies and quickly end the call. Or to send me a verse and tell me to pray and get my heart right with God. Or even to just avoid my self-centered texts and melancholy moans. But instead she invested her time and trouble (I’m a messy phone-crier and my voice reaches an ear-shattering pitch when I’m upset. It’s not pretty) to help me find the path toward healing.
I wish I were a friend like she is.
Beverly Engel talks at length about the healing power of compassion in her book, It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion. The book outlines how to heal your own spirit and emotions by treating yourself kindly, by forgiving yourself as you would a friend. As I read, I was reminded of all the ways my friend’s compassion on me has helped me through the healing process.
I want to be that kind of friend, and I know you do, too. We want to be able to reach out to those across the street or across the church aisle or across the coffee table and to offer meaningful hope for a brighter future.
Starting on page 57 of her book, Beverly offers concrete benefits of the healing power of compassion. I think these are also great ways we can demonstrate compassion toward our family members and even ourselves. It’s almost a recipe for being the good in another’s pain. Here’s the points I want to remember when I find a crying friend.
How to Show Compassion
1. Acknowledge the pain.
Have you ever been hurting — the gasping-in-pain, not-sure-I-can-go-on kind of hurting — and those around you seemed unable or unwilling to recognize it? This has been what bothered me about the story of the Good Samaritan . How could those religious men walk by, see him bleeding, and keep going?
But in my life, there have been a couple times when I looked into the eyes of a friend and cried out tears of anguish…and she simply looked away.
It hurts like nothing else. I just can’t describe it. Worse than the original beating down. It’s so hard, that betrayal of trust and affection. Can’t you see my heart bleed? Please put out a hand to stem the flow! my spirit cries.
Could I be as callous or negligent as to hurry on by a hurting friend? Oh, God, let it not happen. Please open my eyes to the needy souls around me.
2. Extend the compassion you sorely need for yourself.
We all need compassion, daily compassion for the frustrations of dirty kitchen floors and generous compassion for the major dream-shattering failures of life. That’s the compassion we must give, that life preserver against drowning in the chaotic floods of trials.
I used to think that the most compassionate people are the ones who have endured the most horrific events, as the grace they received would teach them to extend more toward others.
But not all survivors respond that way. Some seem to hoard the hope. Against all logic, they become miserly with mercy, demanding more and more from others while releasing none of their own. It’s a cruel and heartless way to live.
Healing compassion, however, just like true love, is wildly generous. The more it gives of itself — heart and hands and time and talents — the more it attracts. There is no dearth of compassion in the world. The more you give, the more you get. Let’s fling open our hearts and waste compassion on everyone around us.
3. Empathize with the emotions.
When we are hurting, it is natural to feel that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. But a good friend makes you feel as though she feels it, too. She cries with you, flushes with anger on your behalf, and moans with you over the injustice and pain.
There are a couple times in my adult life that were really, truly dark. God granted me such grace and healing, and I praise Him for it. But I remember years ago praying that He would not let me forget my tears He had bottled and the scars He had faded. I look at those when my own friends suffer, so I can remember what it was like to carry those burdens.
Some women want to put all their trials so far behind themselves, nearly denying the wounds that shaped their souls. To do so is not only disingenuous in the face of God’s redeeming grace, it is also crippling to our own healing ministry toward others. We cannot begin to reach out toward others in healing help if we cannot be honest about our own pain.
4. Show understanding for reactions.
We all react differently under pain. Some people get quiet and try to hide. Some act out in uncharacteristic ways. I’m a little bit loud when I’m working through something touchy.
The most unproductive thing is to try to fix the reaction. The reaction isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem. Now, granted, there may be a completely unhealthy or even sinful reaction. That needs to be dealt with. But even so, nothing will make sense until the painful problem itself is at least acknowledged and addressed. Otherwise the reaction will just continue as long as the pain continues to stimulate it.
It seems like most people just need to hear, “Of course you feel that way. It’s exactly how you should feel under the circumstances.” We need another to validate our feelings, to verbalize that yes, indeed, the sky has fallen and the world has gone cray cray and all the people are mad. If the friend also cries with us and makes soft moaning noises while patting our back, that’s even better.
5. Put the blame where it belongs.
Some people are natural “fix-ers.” They see what could be done to fix the problem or to guard against the problem having occurred, and they are quick to point out what should be done now or worse, what should have been done in the first place to keep that painful event from happening.
That’s the worst ever. Completely not helpful for healing.
I’m pretty sure I’ve made that mistake before. And it’s happened enough to me that I now see how completely unhelpful that is. It may seem helpful to the “fix-er,” but in reality, it is more like blaming the victim. And nobody needs that.
So I try to remember when faced with a hurting friend to verbalize early and often that it’s not her fault. Bad things and bad people happen to good friends. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and they should be punished. I agree.
Isn’t it such a relief, anyway, to hear someone say, “Wow, I’m so sorry that happened to you. You did the right thing. That was not your fault. You must be really hurting.” Those four sentences have tremendous power.
6. Forgive for faults.
Hurting people do hurt people. It’s the burden of the compassionate friend to stop the cycle and to start by forgiving the crying bundle of hurt in front of her.
I remember a long, long, long time ago a dear friend demonstrated that to me. I was the sobbing bundle of hurt, snotting out my sorrow in a classroom to my fellow teacher. I was slighted, I was disrespected, I was insulted. And I had to vent it all out. And in the middle of my venting, I said some terribly insulting things about my dear friend right to her face right then and there. My ears still burn at the memory.
Then I laid my head down on the lesson plan book and sobbed in shame and agony. Several long minutes later, I raised my head to find her still sitting there, smiling — smiling! — at me in understanding and love. I stammered out an apology to which she only replied it was already forgiven. And it really was. She ever after behaved toward me as though my ugly self had never reared its disgusting head toward her.
That’s a real friend. When you can hold another’s pain and forget the ugly refuse that spews forth from it, looking only for healing and remembering only beauty, that is real love.
7. Demonstrate kindness.
It is one thing to talk the friend talk. True compassion has feet and hands on it. It acts upon love languages, providing service and gifts and touch and warmth where most needed.
It is going beyond the kind words “be ye warm and be ye filled” to provide the tangible resources for healing. It is the fur coat from the elderly lady who prayed me through a new ministry; it is the gallon jars of chili from the deacon when the children were sick for a month straight; it was the conversational starters whispered into my ear on my way into the mixer at work; it was the book on spiritual healing when my steps dragged heavy.
Kindness isn’t always a grand gesture (not everyone has a spare fur coat lying around). But it is something real, something substantial to hold onto when the world shakes. It appeals to the senses — something tasted, touched, smelled, or heard. Thus the kind demonstration remains a tangible evidence of compassion throughout the healing journey and beyond.
8. Replace criticism with love.
Pain is pointed, whether it is self-inflicted pain or weaponized pain, intentional or accidental, personal or casual. The sharp, jagged edges of the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds gape wide around the affliction, oozing life and dreams out in loss.
Slivers remain behind. Slivers of doubt, of fear, of disappointment, of confusion. Sometimes well-meaning (or not) counselors poke and prod at the wound, trying to remove the offense, but the critical probing only jabs the fragments deeper.
Criticism never heals. It’s metallic, serrated edges only deepen the sore and plunge the remaining shards of deeper into the soul.
Love has the opposite effect. Like pure water, unadulterated love is a cleansing balm. After soaking the oozing, infected spirit in its warm comfort for an extended time, the impurities, slivers, and dirt rise to the surface and slough off. It’s a much less painful process. Long, perhaps, and a bit messy, but still far preferable to poking, prodding, bleeding, and infection.
Not many friends have that patience to change the dressings, behold the oozing wounds afresh, gently remove offenses, apply more love, and wait patiently for healing. It takes time. It looks bad. It stinks. But the results are so much healthier, with fewer scars and much less pain.
9. Fight isolation with connection.
When we hurt, we avoid close contact with others. We avoid rubbing up against them, fearing the normal jostle of life will break open fresh wounds. Those hiding deep scars or debilitating pain tend to continue a pattern of avoidance long term. They steer clear of open, honest dialog and close confidence; there is too much to hide.
Healing doesn’t happen in secret. A broken limb cannot regain mobility inside a permanent cast. Burns don’t heal nor scars fade wrapped tightly in bandages.
Healing does happen, though, in openness. One of my favorite writers on healing, Mary DeMuth, is fond of saying that healing comes through community. That’s hard to hear when it feels like community hurts. I know. Fear feels safer than honesty. Trust is risky.
God did not, however, create us as individual gods in and of ourselves. We are created as a body together, and it is only as functioning within that body that we find healing and wholeness.
That’s why when our child scabs his knee, we remind him to keep walking properly on that foot. If he starts limping or twisting the injured leg, more pain and strain results. But with a little discomfort in daily routine, the skin and even the scab stretch across the wound and become wholly part of the body again.
Isn’t that what we want when we are hurting? And isn’t this our prayer for our friends in pain? We long for the time when the scars fade and the smiles return, when all is right and relationships are strong. That is why we keep reaching out, continue soaking one another in love, remain faithful to these important relationships.
What other ways should we show healing compassion?
Tell me in the comments below!