Compassion Is Power

It took a few decades to understand what my mother taught me.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

I believe that compassion is the most empowering human emotion. We’re certainly more powerful when compassionate than when angry if we understand that genuine power is the ability to act in our long-term best interests, relatively free of guilt and shame.

I owe the inspiration to use compassion as a coping mechanism to my late mother. As an abused child, she was raised in foster care, with 12 other children. As a teenage wife, she was a victim of severe emotional abuse and domestic violence. In my first decade of life, she left my abusive father 13 times, with police escorts.

After the final separation, she was a single mother, in her late twenties, working long hours at a factory assembly line. In the 1950s there was little sympathy and no support for mothers who “failed their marriages.” The pressures on her were enormous. She began drinking heavily to numb her understandable resentment at the unfairness of her life.

But even in those dark days, whenever anyone in the neighborhood needed help, she was there to offer it. Though we barely had enough food for ourselves, she took in people we hardly knew who had less than we had.

In my cynical adolescence, I thought she just wanted someone to share her complaints. 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. For the rest of her life, she helped scores of people in hard times.     

My mother never talked to me about our violent past; she preferred to focus on the present and future. But during my graduate research on domestic violence, I had to ask her opinion, as someone who had survived it. I told her what I was learning, 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 from crossing the line is compassion, you couldn’t stand to see someone you love feeling bad. Abusers are angry and controlling because they’re not compassionate. Because they’re not compassionate, they can’t heal themselves.”  

“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 him a better person. If I were compassionate, I would have seen that he felt bad because he couldn’t be a better husband. My love only reminded him of how much of a failure he was. If I were compassionate, I wouldn’t have gone back; I would have left him and hoped that he healed on his own.”

My mother also taught me the difference between compassion and trust. One Thanksgiving, I came home from college to find that she had taken in a couple of distant cousins who were out of work. I was not surprised to see people living in our house. What shocked me was that the closets and drawers in all the rooms, including my bedroom, were locked. When I insisted on knowing why, she explained, with embarrassment, that her distant nephews had stolen money from her, along with a few pieces of her costume jewelry. Enraged at their ungrateful betrayal, I was ready to throw out the freeloading, petty criminals. But she stopped me cold.

"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."

True compassion helps us to trust wisely. It helps us see the pain people suffer and the defenses they use against their pain. With compassion, we can better discern manipulation and deceit as coping mechanisms. We don’t hold it against them for trying, but neither do we let them get away with it.

My mother taught me the meaning of personal power, which I have tried to teach to resentful, angry, and abusive clients ever since. You reach down deep, beneath ego, resentment, and hurt, to touch the part of your spirit that wants to grow, improve, appreciate, and connect with the good in other people. She taught me that compassion for the basic humanity in us all is genuine power.