It’s painful enough to suffer. To suffer alone is excruciating.
For many years in my professional life, I worked with recovering substance abusers and their families. The road to recovery is a torturous road. Anyone who has had an experience in dealing with victims as well as their families knows. One of the qualities that a victim of substance-abuse loses very quickly is his or her sense of personal worth. Underneath the defensive façade of bravado and grandiosity there is a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and self-hate, of personal failure and almost all of the negative traits that being human can produce. One of the things that I’ve noticed in the years working in this field is how important it is that someone sees in them qualities of goodness. I don’t mean by that lavishing a person with inappropriate praise. Imputing goodness to others is more an attitude than words. What is communicated here is the sense that the caregiver really does care about the person. They see something in the substance abuser that is inherently good. The perception may not be expressed in so many words like ‘I love you’ or ‘you’re really fine person’ or ‘you’re destined for great things.’ It’s subliminal. I suppose seen one way, the ability to impute goodness and worth to another reflects the inherent goodness and sense of worth of the one attributing the goodness.
Years ago, in a clinic in Connecticut where I was working with recovering people there was a social worker. He was very disagreeable man. His years in the field had jaded him and he treated his patients with a contempt that made me cringe. I remember how he would make statements like, “You know, you see one of these guys and you’ve seen them all; they’re all the same; chronic misfits.” The inability of this particular caregiver to see anything but the ravages of a person’s disease was more a comment about the poverty of his own soul than descriptive of the person of the recovering alcoholic. I don’t know why the clinic kept him on. Nonetheless the damage was being done all the while. In the eyes of a recovering person he undoubtedly saw in his care givers eyes, the same debilitating contempt that the recovering person had for himself.
That we might admire goodness in others, inclines us to want to appropriate the same goodness for ourselves, prompting the feeling, “I’d like to be the way they are.”
Is essential goodness latent in all of us, the way the oak abides in the acorn, waiting for its time?
I suspect it’s there, eager to be called forth.
Caring is one of humanity’s oldest instincts. It has languished at times, but it’s never been lost. The golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” popularly associated with Christ, is in fact a teaching that long precedes Christ. It has been preached and taught, if not always practiced, for thousands of years. It’s indelibly impressed in human consciousness, and in weal and woe, the desire for acting compassionately surfaces periodically.
In some instances, the desire for goodness is institutionalized. I’m familiar with Talbot Mentors, one such organization here in Talbot County. I have mentored a young man for twenty-four years. I met him when he was eight.
The reciprocal nature of goodness is relevant here. I believe my decision to be a mentor was to do good. I also knew it was reparative –– I mean by that, I wanted to help, but also to heal something in myself in the process. I was acutely conscious then of having not been as available to my own children as I’d wished. I was making it up to them through the boy I mentored. That did not mitigate the good that came from it. The boy lost his way in his late teens through drugs and criminal behavior. He pushed me away for a while. Eventually it became clear that the relationship was important to him and recently we reconnected. It turned out that my presence in his life had been useful. Caring carries a lot of weight in the human equation. It goes two ways.
Perhaps the simplest way to make the point about goodness and caring is to invite us to review our lives and to recall the people for whom we’ve felt an intuitive sense of gratitude. It’s typically teachers, but may be others with whom we’ve had minimal contact. Whoever they may have been, they left us with an indelible impression of their goodness, and in a reciprocal way, communicated to us something of our own.
As I write this, I recall Herr Raichle, my German teacher. He would address us by name; “Herr Merrill,” he’d say and then ask me to say or read something in German. There was something in the way he looked at the students –– communicating profound respect and regard –– that made us feel important, cared for. Somebody’s there for me.
It’s encouraging how in today’s cynical world that a man who tells us he does nothing, wants only to be kind and compassionate –– that’s all –– captures the hearts and imaginations of millions. There’s an aura about the Dalai Lama that is convincing. What is it about compassion and kindness that stir the heart and change people’s lives and how what’s so seemingly insubstantial and fragile as those qualities will move people deeply, often to tears? I believe what people see in the Dalai Lama’s eyes is a clear affirmation that they are not alone. Someone cares. Kindness and goodness are there. We need only look for them.
A footnote: The word compassion, from its Latin origins means: “to suffer together.” In Aramaic, the word derives from “rehem,” the word for ‘womb,’ suggesting an attitude of primal care and unconditional concern for another.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.