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CYC-Online Issue 100 MAY 2007 / BACK
Listen to this

We’re getting there

Laura Steckley

In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience – our suffering, our empathy as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be that way. 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. - From The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

I have always wanted to be a runner. For a very long time, anyway. Before creating confusion, I should be clear; I hate to run. Within the first minute or two I want to stop. I have to play mind games to keep myself going. A black mood quickly descends, and I hate everyone I see. If I am approaching two little old ladies on the sidewalk, a part of me wants to knock them off for not getting out of my way; stepping off into the street and back feels like too much added energy, but then knocking them off would take more, so I choose the street. I’m sure people in cars driving by are watching me and sniggering at my pace and form. I can hardly bear to think about what actual runners might be thinking.

I go out a few times a week and struggle with my insecurities and demons for a limited period of time, and then I go back to my day to day. It’s not that my insecurities and demons don’t lurk in other areas of my life, but they are naked and raw when I’m running. And when I’m running, I often think about the young people in some of the places I have worked. I wonder if perhaps they have felt similarly as they struggled through their day to day. What might be considered to be the slightest consideration likely requires too much psychic energy when in the throes of demons and insecurity. Keeping going must sometimes feel impossible, as impossible as bearing the disappointment and despair of screwing up. I wonder how many times I balked at their egocentricity, ugliness and nastiness, not recognising my own similar capacities. I wonder how compassionate I was in the face of their darkness and suffering. I know I struggled.

Acceptance is a fundamental requirement for compassion and there is likely a direct relationship between compassion for oneself and compassion for others. The distance between acknowledging the necessity of greater self-acceptance and actually making progress towards it feels like a marathon, however, and there is often fear that if one just lets go it will all go to hell. The paradox, interestingly, is that one is much more capable of change from a place of acceptance. Certainly it is those times when I can approach my run not only with some acceptance but a bit of humour about the ridiculous thoughts and feelings I experience that I tend to feel a bit lighter and go a bit further.

Certainly my more profound experiences in child care arose in moments of greater presence, which required a significant degree of acceptance. We often talk about accepting the child and not the behaviour, but I suspect the kind of acceptance necessary for transformation goes deeper than this. To be fully present requires, amongst other things, no internal noise about how things should or shouldn’t be, or how we do or don’t want another to be. This allows for a greater awareness and presence with what is, now. It is easier to listen from this place, and to spontaneously take account of the multitude of factors affecting the moment so as to provide a child-centred, useful, often creative response.

A desire or belief that we should be different instinctively provokes resistance and defensiveness from deep within, keeping us stuck or at the very least, directly competing with the part of ourselves or others that is trying to change. At one level what we need to provide young people with is a sort of emotional environment in which they can take a break from their identity and related baggage, if they’re ready and willing. Phelan (2007) calls it a “safe space” and Dass (1985) calls it “coming up for air.” At another level, however, we are often encouraged to feel responsible for the behaviour of young people and do have explicit aims related to change “change in behaviour, change in thinking, change in feeling.

Managing these tensions, between acceptance and change, between just being with and doing something, is advanced practice – child and youth care practice, and spiritual practice. Another tension which must be managed, as is raised in the opening quote, is between being in a position of superior power and a requirement for equality. Young people in our establishments have power, and sometimes yield it in difficult and frightening ways; but in the final analysis, we have significantly more power over their lives than they do over ours. We consistently make decisions that affect the pace and content of their day, the amount of time they spend with their families, and the duration of their time with us. Rightly, their decision making also affects these things, but final decisions usually rest with us.

Truly being with someone in compassion, however, means shedding judgement and superiority, and somehow moving beyond the unavoidable and even necessary power differential between member of staff and young person. This means somehow connecting beyond these roles, while still fulfilling them. Dass (1985) refers to the “relative realities” of our various identities; shifting away from an exclusive reliance on the reality of one particular identity, and moving in and out of various identities as the situation warrants strongly increases our flexibility and responsiveness. The more I am exclusively caught in an identity of helper, the more I pressure the young person to be the helped. From this place, it is more difficult to connect in other ways, on other levels.

A less complex illustration would be a very basic conceptualisation of roles offered to me when I first started working in residential child care: the soother, the enforcer and the stimulator. The soother does just that – soothes soreness, nurtures self-esteem, and listens. The enforcer sets limits, benignly confronts, enforces rules. The stimulator excites interest, encourages participation, and inspires laughter. Most staff groups have members who feel more comfortable fulfilling one role over the others, but ideally there is a balance across the whole team. When this balance is missing, problems will likely arise. Practitioners who can shift between roles as needed, sometimes moment to moment, tend to be more effective and comprise higher functioning teams.

Being able to shift between the relative realities of role, identity, separateness, connectedness, staff, fellow being, acceptance and change requires a firm grounding in a quiet, more enduring self behind the noisy, temporal nature of each concrete situation. Holding the seat of one’s wisdom allows one to be open to what is and respond accordingly, while maintaining congruence over time. Developing such a capacity is a slow, non-linear, difficult process, and I’m not sure how well it is encouraged or supported in child and youth care settings. My own experiences of practice and awareness of other establishments is that they are struggling to provide care for their care givers on a much more basic level.

So where does this leave me, then, with the running? I’m not sure. I am definitely working through some important processes out there. I’m slowly learning to keep going, to not give up, to set and achieve realistic targets, to be more present, to accept more, and to change. These are all things I tried to help young people learn when I was in practice. I am also staying connected with my darkness, albeit in small manageable portions. This provides regular doses of humility and enables me to be that little bit more compassionate than I would otherwise be. I think it’s good to have a regular practice that helps one with all of these things. So, maybe I don’t need to be a runner, but I think I'll keep running.

I’ve just come back from a particularly good run, maybe as a result of struggling to articulate my thoughts in this article. The air is cool and the crab apples are in bloom. I remind myself to notice. I also smell the sea air and admire the hills beyond. How much easier it is when I can turn down some of the noise in my head. It’s a bit like turning down the gravity one wee notch. I make eye contact with some of the other folks in the park, at first only fleetingly. One guy has brought his dog out for a walk and he is using a cane. We pass as we go in opposite directions round the loop. The next time I pass him I notice his slow progress and pained expression. I feel slightly silly at my own, and feel grateful for being healthy and injury-free. I venture a smile; he smiles back and cocks his head to the side slightly, maybe as if to say “we’re all in this together.” I still have grouchy, self-defeating thoughts, but they’re less frequent and loud. I still want to stop and have to push to keep going, but it’s a bit easier. We pass around once more; this time he gives me a wink. we’re getting there.


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