pdf of this article

For more information, contact:

918 Broad Street
Durham, NC 27705
Telephone: (919) 286-5051

Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

Acceptance, Compassion, Patience

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

Acceptance, compassion, patience. In my last column I reflected on the first of these qualities—acceptance. This time, I hold compassion in the light.

It is a wonder to me how things appear in my life that are just what I need to see or hear. That has been the case over the past months as I was considering compassion. A few days ago, a friend posted a quote by Margaret Mead: “helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” Compassion is what makes us civilized. Then I read in New Harmony, a book by J. Philip Newell, that compassion is the path to healing and wholeness, for ourselves, others and the world. Finally, a guided meditation by Sylvia Boorstein offers a beautiful way to practice compassion towards ourselves. We must feel compassion for ourselves in order to be able to feel it for others and our world.

Compassion is the first sign of civilization

These thoughts from Margaret Mead are taken from a book by physician Ira Byock*:

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.**

Compassion is not some politically correct notion, helping someone else through difficulty is what makes us civilized. I believe that most of us know and at some level believe this to be true. We know that we feel better when expressing love and care towards others. While it feels good to be loved and cared for by others, research supports that we actually feel better when we are expressing love. There are so many opportunities to express compas-sion, from offering deep listening and understanding to taking actions, large or small.

One of the most challenging tasks is to feel compassion for those who are different from us, with whom we disagree. Rather than coming from a fearful place that leads to division, polarization, and mistrust, we can come from a place of compassion. This doesn’t mean we ignore our differences, but rather seek to understand the other’s opinion and emotions, recognizing their right to their views and feelings. As we are compassionate, we also practice other aspects of a civilized society—treating others with respect and dignity and essentially doing no harm. From this place of compassionate understanding we can find a way forward to resolve problems.

Compassion is the path forward to healing for us, each other and the world.

About a month ago, a friend suggested that we read J Phillip Newell’s book, A New Harmony,** which focuses on the commonalities of all faiths. He supports an openness that allows for learning from each other. Early on, he describes a statue, the Angel of Compassion, that had the inscription “Every Human Being is the Beloved of the Nameless Eternal One” (p.34). He found himself offering the silent prayer “May we know that we are beloved.” Knowing and remembering that we are beloved is essential for our own individual healing and well-being. Feeling beloved may come from a belief in the Divine, or a sense of oneness with creation or our own deep inner wise self. When we feel loved we can be compassionate towards ourselves, treating ourselves with love and kindness as we move through the world with all of our faults and shortcomings. When we feel loved, we feel whole and healed and are we be able to reach out with compassion to others and to care for our world. If we are to survive surely the way forward is through com-passion and care for ourselves, others and our planet.

Sweetheart you are in pain.”

Finally, several months ago I ran across a meditation practice by Sylvia Boorstein,*** a Buddhist teacher. She described how early on in her meditation practice she thought that she would get to the point that she would no longer experience distress. Sadly, she has recognized that is not true. She may feel anger, sadness, worry, or any number of unpleasant feelings, but rather than fighting the feelings or feeling badly about them, she accepts them. She centers, breathes, and says to herself “Sweetheart, you are in pain.” She acknowledges and honors her distress and sends love and kindness to herself.

I love this practice and share it with everyone I know. We often find it most difficult to have compassion towards ourselves, our foibles, short-comings, etc. This incredibly kind gesture that we would offer so freely to a loved one, is often something we do not offer ourselves. Simply saying the words and treating our distressed self with tenderness and care, often helps the distress to dissolve. As we sit and envelop ourselves with love, we can often see things more clearly, remember that we are beloved and find a way forward.

Sweetheart, if you are in pain, wrap yourself with tenderness and care and remember you are beloved.


*Ira Byock, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (Avery, 2012)

**J. Philip Newell, A New Harmony , The Spirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul (St. Andrew Press, 2012

***Sylvia Boorstein, Restoring the Mind to Kindness,