My late mother overcame a history of severe emotional abuse and domestic violence to bless me with the belief that compassion is the most powerful human emotion.
Before I was 11 years-old, my mother had left my father 13 times. This is known as the elastic effect in which battered women repeatedly leave, only to return to their abusers. My mother tried to go back a 14th time, but by then he had found another woman. So still in her twenties, she became a single mother, working in a factory to support her child. In the 1950s there was little sympathy for mothers who "failed their marriages" for whatever reason; I was the only kid in the Catholic schools I attended who was "from a broken home."
The pressures on my mother were enormous. She drank and smoked heavily. But even in those darkest days, whenever anyone in the neighborhood or in our extended family needed help, she was there to offer it. Though we barely had enough food for ourselves, she took in friends, relatives, and near-strangers who had less than we did. In my cynical adolescence, I thought she just wanted someone to complain to about how unfair the world was, because she and the people she took in did a lot of that. But much later I saw the truth: In sympathizing with the pain of other people, she was healing her own. As she grew more compassionate, her resentment vanished. She stopped drinking and smoking and helped hundreds of people over the course of her life.
Compassion vs. Trust
One Thanksgiving I came home from college to find that my mother had taken in a couple of distant cousins who were out of work. I was not surprised to see someone living in her house. What shocked me was that all our closets and the drawers in my room were locked. I demanded to know why. She explained, with embarrassment, that my cousins - her nephews - had stolen money, a few pieces of her little costume jewelry, and even some her clothing. Of course, I was ready to throw out the ungrateful, freeloading, petty criminals, but she stopped me.
"It's not hard to keep things locked," she said. "It would be harder to make them leave when they don't have anywhere to go."
I have used my mother's lesson repeatedly, in my own life and in my work with couples who have suffered the betrayal of abuse or infidelity: You can be compassionate without trusting.
It is extremely difficult to rebuild trust once it has been betrayed. Genuine trust requires letting down defenses, and the injured emotional system will not allow that with any consistency. No matter how hard you try, doubt and suspicion smack reflexively against your desire to trust a loved one who has hurt you.
Compassion for loved ones should be unconditional, but trust, particularly once it's been betrayed, must be earned. Couples who are successful at putting trust on the back burner and focusing instead on compassion, wake up one day and realize that, after a period of compassion, trust has returned, that is, it has been earned over time. My cousins eventually earned back our trust; I do not think they would have been able to do so, without my mother's compassion.
Our Violent Past
My mother and I never talked about our violent past -- she preferred to focus on the present and future. But when I went to graduate school and found myself drawn to the study of family abuse, I had to ask her opinion, as someone who had lived through it all. I told her what I had learned: Abusive men use anger and violence to control and oppress women. But she didn't buy it.
"Everybody wants to control their spouses when you come right down to it," she said. "What stops most people is compassion - you couldn't stand to see someone you love hurt or feeling bad. Abusers are angry and controlling because they're not compassionate. Because they're not compassionate, they can't get better."
"But wasn't it compassion that made you go back all those times?" I asked.
"No," she said emphatically. "It was ego - I wouldn't rest until I made us a happy family. If I were compassionate, I would have seen that he felt so bad because he thought he couldn't be a better husband and father. My love only reminded him of how much of a failure he thought he was. If I were compassionate, I wouldn't have gone back; I would have let him heal on his own."
My mother taught me the meaning of personal power, which I have tried to teach to resentful, angry, and abusive people ever since: You reach deep down, beneath ego, resentment, and hurt, to touch the part of your spirit that wants to grow, improve, create, appreciate, and connect with the good in other people; and you have enough compassion not to aggravate the shame of those who have not yet learned to return it. She taught me that compassion is power.