Planting Seeds of Self-Compassion in Childhood
It’s difficult as a mom the bear witness to a child’s grief. Recently, my little one – little at least to me – was diagnosed with deteriorating bone condition in her elbows. It means she can’t do her very favorite sport, gymnastics. For reasons, still mysterious to me, Josie has been jumping since I found her hanging by one arm off the side of her crib at 10 months old. One tumbling class after another sprung her into the throws of competitive gymnastics. She has spent at least one-third of her life in a gym. If I calculate the time it is over 10,000 hours. She’s not even 14 yet.
But the wear and tear proved too much on her arms, such that the impact of tumbling stopped the flow of blood and nutrients to her elbows and the bones started dying. A bird with broken wings. Surgery is in her future. In spite of the pain, she just competed in her last state championship meet in a very limited way (for the team!) and eked out one last medal. It took a lot of courage.
We had a long drive home in the dark and in silence. There were muffled tears. If I tried to speak, she’d “shush” me. Shhhhh!
Then, after a long while she began telling me about news story she had heard recently – about a man who was creating prosthetic limbs for children in Africa. Indeed, these were for people whose arms had been blown away in war or maliciously butchered off so they could not stand up against the warlords. “The man was making this one kid a set of new arms with fingers,” she reported. “So the boy could pick things up and eat with a fork.” Then she remained silent.
I didn’t know quite what to say. I was just trying to hold back my own grief about the inevitable goodbye she have to make to her coaches and her gym family in the upcoming week. And here she was, in two sentences, giving perspective to her life in the bigger scheme of humanity. She was suffering yet she could appreciate, and identify with, the plight of others far worse off than she.
Really, there was nothing more to be said.
Kristen Neff, PhD, a leading expert on self-compassion describes three attributes: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. Essentially, self-compassion involves the ability for a person to hold in awareness one’s own suffering – without judgment; it means being able to direct kindness, warmth, and understanding toward oneself; and finally, it entails the ability to experience one’s pain as part of a universal human experience. We are not alone.
There are teachable moments every day, even in long drive home.