“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
– Thomas Merton
Honestly, “interdependence” is not a word I like. It means I have to be dependent, vulnerable, and sometimes broken in front of those I love and respect.
But when did we make vulnerability a bad thing? We were made to live in community and in relationship with one another. Just think: we’re most alive and at our absolute best when we’re interacting with and living life alongside one another. And if we are to walk through our lives with those around us, doesn’t that require some level of trust and vulnerability? Unless we desire a life of superficial relationships, I suppose so.
As a counselor, my job is to be professionally compassionate and invite such vulnerability. Who wants to go talk to a counselor who doesn’t care, who can’t empathize? So my compassion meter should, in theory, be full for me to be at my professional best. But because I’m human, I have to continually assess and re-assess my life and relationships and take stock of what I say and believe is important to me.
Otherwise, compassion is the last thing on my mind.
Compassion fatigue or burnout is a real problem in the “helping industry.” Therapists, doctors, pastors, social workers, and teachers often suffer from emotional trauma during the course of their professional lives. When compassion burnout isn’t addressed, we then begin to become more and more self-centered, losing our awareness of our brothers and sisters suffering in isolation alongside us. But it is only by receiving compassion that I can in turn keep walking in compassion. It is only by intentionally placing myself in the direct line of relational fire that I experience true community and interdependence.
It takes risk and courage to do this day after day.
It takes courage when you’ve been hurt in friendships and romantic relationships.
It takes bravery to reach out when you’re in pain or lonely.
Loneliness—the opposite of interdependence. I firmly believe that loneliness is one of the most powerful emotions we feel. It affects the core of our being, our beliefs about what we have to offer in relationships and to the world. Loneliness is fuel for doubt.
But we can change that. We can point out healing when it seems hopeless. We can shout about the power of healthy and loving relationships, even when it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to invest in our lives. We can sit compassionately with those in our community who daily struggle with mental illness and addiction and tell them, over and over, “You are worth more to me than you will ever know.”
Brothers and sisters, I am sorry. I’m sorry that sometimes I lose hope for my clients and allow bitterness to take up root where hope should have its home. I’m sorry that as a counselor, as someone who is trained to cope with emotional pain, it’s sometimes difficult for me to shoulder my pain and that of those around me at the same time.
But it is this interdependence with my friends and family, this need for relationships, that keeps me present and engaged. If I thought I could handle the pain, suffering, and junk of the world, I’d be doing it on my own and alone. Rather, I have to walk alongside you to be able to keep walking. To remember how hope and love have profoundly changed my life, and to be able to remind others of this when they are unable to remember for themselves.
I want to challenge you today to do something that makes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable—share something you’ve struggled to be honest about with a friend. Invite them to do the same. This is what life is about. You and me, we were made to be encouragement, support, love, and hope for each other. It doesn’t work when we turn our backs on each other, but only when we extend our hand.
We find love when we love. We receive when we give of ourselves.
Sarah B. is a therapist, a listener, and an advocate. Raised in the Midwest and now living in the South, she’s made it her life’s work to point people to hope and healing. Sarah is one of millions who have battled depression and anxiety and is grateful to have found her own path to health within a community of deeply loved friends and family. She is passionate about helping people find freedom from addiction and pain so they can carry hope and light to those who are in darkness.