The Power of Self Compassion, A Heart Story
On a mid-summer Sunday, in coastal Sydney, the squawking seagulls, and occasional cars driving past, signal a warm beach day unfolding beyond the bedroom window. The soundscape lifted me from what had felt like a deep descent into another timeline. I could still feel this warm presence echoing from the dream space.
He was equal parts fierce, intelligent and gentle, like a compassionate warrior and had been my favourite teacher — with me for four out of the seven years of primary school.
I can still remember the first time I saw him, in long strides, striped tie swinging, brown slacks flaring, as he crossed the playground, strikingly handsome. It was 1977 and he was only 22, straight out of teacher training. Even at 5-years-old, I had an inkling he and I were connected somehow, in that strange way that intuition goes unquestioned at that age.
There had been many times during those years when he stepped in to protect me. He would find me crying in a far corner of the playground, I’d resist his help (he called me a stubborn little thing) and when I finally shared what was wrong I would point to my heart and say ‘it hurts in here’.
He would seek out the culprits, and give them a serve for being so unkind until they hugged me and took me back in. We would continue our choreography for Grease’s ‘Summer Lovin’ re-enactment and all would be seemingly well for a time.
Thirty years had passed yet we still remembered those moments of connection. He was my kindred spirit, and protector, and saved my soul countless times.
When I woke that morning remembering his presence in my dream and feeling a strong urge to look him up, I felt an inexplicable sense of urgency. For the next 2 hours diligently trawled through phone book listings, calling here and there, piecing together information shared over the years by other students. It was that sweet spot between technology and analog, when landlines still existed but the internet could help.
It was almost coffee time and I began to feel like this was a futile exercise. The rational mind kicked in and was overriding the early-morning, otherworldly wisdom I had awoken with. Then I found him. That voice I knew so well deep in my bones on the other end of the line. He sounded almost the same, recognisable, but with the undertones of a life that had surely ravaged him.
The world isn’t always an easy place for people with deep feelings, and compassion for others along with an overactive justice chip. It isn't always conducive to soulful empaths like us.
We had a few unexpected things in common since we had last connected decades prior. We had both experienced domestic abuse as well as mental health challenges. Back when I had known him as a tanned and tall, combi-driving, free spirit, it would have been difficult to imagine his choice of partner - one of the most powerful financial CEOs is in the country.
He shared alarming stories of being instructed to sleep on the hotel bathroom floors on their family holidays and being kept from his only son for too many years as their relationship faltered and ultimately failed.
When it had all become too much he left his career as a teacher, became reclusive in his favourite harbourside suburb, and attempted to live with his inherited bipolar diagnosis.
We arranged to meet for lunch the next day. He wanted to take me out to an expensive and iconic seafood restaurant on Sydney Harbour. He was, almost out of a mixture of habit and yearning, slightly flirtatious, though I could tell he was trying not to be on account of the fact I was an ex-student.
He seemed embarrassed to have an honest, vulnerable adult conversation, grappling with this new way of relating. I assured him that he had taken care of me so generously when I was a child and it was the least I could do to spend a few hours listening to him, and showing him some care in return. It felt like the minor settling of a cosmic debt. Later in the day, he called to confirm the booking and relay how looking forward to meeting up he was.
The following morning he called again to say he had been up half the night worried about meeting in person. He was embarrassed for me to see him in his advanced state of decline, rather than hold onto my image from when I had known him in his glory days. This, combined with a bump on his neck that he had been to the doctor about, meant he wasn’t ready to meet in person. He said he had been on a high, but was now on a low and could not face me.
I was disappointed but also totally understanding and felt such deep compassion for his current circumstance. I wondered how such a great man could fall so far. He asked me to give him a couple of weeks to get himself sorted and when I offered to drop him a nice meal, he said no.
The next night, he died peacefully in his sleep.
He was and still is my ultimate symbol of empathy and compassion. Amidst all the crazy of public schooling in the 1970s, he found ways to support me through loneliness, and emotional overwhelm. I’ll never forget it.
Ironically, he appears to have struggled to develop compassion for himself. Perhaps that’s why I write this here for you today. We all deserve to treat ourselves and others with kindness and compassion, but so rarely do we actually do this.
May this story be your line in the sand, much as it was mine.
DECIDE. BECOME WILLING. TAKE ACTION.
As with anything else that we are not adept at, or does not come naturally, self-compassion may take practice.
But when we decide, and become willing to take action, no matter what, we remember our power to change things.
In turn, this becomes a practice we can apply to any other type of change whether it be in ourselves, in our families, our communities or the wider world.
This has been part one of the self-compassion playbook. Stay connected for more, or head to the page below and share some details so I can send you the whole series.
© alena turley 2024