I suspect that many of us learn about compassion from our mothers. I certainly did.
Throughout my entire childhood my mother suffered from a rare neurological disorder. When I was nine years old, her illness became acute and life threatening, demanding extensive neurosurgery. But before that major event she was just “Mom.” I sensed her wordless attunement to the exigencies of my young life. I understood that my day-to-day distress was witnessed and deeply acknowledged by her on a molecular level. I think her attunement may have been greater because she was almost totally deaf and relied more heavily on nonverbal cues and feeling tone in our interaction.
When her illness suddenly and abruptly severed our connection, it was as if all the breath in my nine year old body had been sucked from me and replaced with a cold emptiness. Our parallel deep suffering began in earnest. I learned in my bones that my intense attachment to her, when cut off, led to an indescribable void, filled with a sadness I did not believe I could tolerate.
But we were both resilient in our own ways. I took my suffering out on the streets and dangled on edge of the misbehavioral abyss. I was smart and canny enough to flirt with personal disaster and still avert it. Meanwhile my mother came out of surgery totally deaf, with no sense of balance, chronic pain, and generalized brain damage. Although her body was significantly wrecked, her spirit was intact, and it seemed to have blossomed. I never once heard her complain about the intense chronic pain or her significant sensory impairment. What I did recognize in her was the complete absence of the fear of death and her loving but firm response to my foolishness. It seemed that she was suffering far less with all her pain and problems than I was with my confusion and misdirected energy.
Although it took quite a while and is still a work in progress, I am sure that it was her responsiveness that spurred me to develop an intense interest in the workings of the mind and heart. The sense of her presence touched me and inspired me to begin to relieve my own suffering and appreciate the suffering of others. I knew I was going to be a psychotherapist well before I knew such a role existed. Was I symbolically trying to heal my mother? Perhaps, but I think not. I believe, now in the light of some hard gained insight, that I have been trying, however imperfectly, to emulate her compassion and equanimity.
Toward the end of her life, my mother was completely bedridden and often quite out of touch with reality. But right before she died she gave me her last teaching. She rallied and was totally lucid mentally. I told her “I love you.” She read my lips and answered, “Love is everything.” They were the last words I heard from her.
About the Author
Richard Avery is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychologist. He is an Assistant Professor in the Clinical Faculty, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, UCSD. He completed CCARE’s Compassion Cultivation Training in 2013.