Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Hard Heart of Compassion Fatigue ...

We seem to value "strength". We want "hard" bodies, "strong" minds, "tough" wills, "hard-as-nails" determination,"rugged" personalities, "sturdy" character and so on. ...  But let us praise softness. ... Let us seek a heart that is not hard, but soft.

Omid Safi

Hi Everyone!

This is a story about hard and soft hearts written by life coach, Darren Poke, in 2011, in Melbourne, Australia. I'd like to share it with you today as we approach Valentine's Day:

There was a young man named Tom who lived in a small village.
He was an angry young man, overreacting to every offense and keeping others at a distance.
 In desperation, his parents asked Tom to go and see the eccentric old priest who lived in the village.
The priest was renowned for his unorthodox methods that somehow worked.
When Tom saw the priest, the older man told the youth to go away and come back with two lumps of clay.
He returned a few hours later and then was told to make a vase out of one of the lumps.
The young man thought that this must have been part of the therapy, so he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm, believing that the opportunity to create art would help him with his temper.
He made the vase, decorated it and put it in the kiln to harden.
Upon completion, Tom presented the beautiful vase to the priest. He was proud of his accomplishment and believed that he was now cured of his anger issues. 
The priest smiled approvingly and gave the young man a hammer.
"Now hit the vase with this hammer," the priest commanded.
"But it will break my beautiful creation!" Tom protested.
"Hit the vase with this hammer," the priest insisted.
"Don't you like it? Isn't it good enough for you?
"Hit the vase with this hammer," the priest continued.
Annoyed, the young man snatched the hammer from the priest and tapped the vase firmly.
The vase immediately smashed into pieces.
"Now look what you've done," Tom said angrily. "You've wasted all of my hard work."
The priest ignored the outburst and left the room for a moment.
He returned with the second lump of clay and placed it on the floor next to the young man.
"I suppose you want me to waste my time by making another vase? Well you can forget about it!" Tom said rudely.
 The priest looked at him with kindness and said,"Hit the clay with the hammer."
"With pleasure!" the young man responded.
He swung the hammer with all of his might and it hit the clay with a thud, leaving a large mark.
"Happy now? What was the point of that?"
The priest picked up the broken pieces of the vase and held them in his hands before the young man.
"See this vase? This is like your heart. You think that you need to be hard to cope with the inevitable disappointments that happen in life. You respond with anger, bitterness and violence, keeping people at a distance, but it doesn't work. Your hardness makes you more fragile. Adversity breaks your spirit too easily."
The priest then picked up the lump of clay, it had a mark where the hammer had hit it, but it was still in one piece.
"You need to soften your heart and be more like this clay. It is still impacted by what happens to it, but it can be restored more easily. A soft heart forgives, loves and uses soft words. It understands that pain and suffering is a part of life and instead of fiercely resisting, it absorbs the blow. It still feels the pain, but isn't broken by it."

The protective hardening of our hearts is a common way of dealing with over-exposure to others' trauma and suffering. Some people make a conscious decision to create a wall of coldness, withdrawal, anger or prickly behaviour, (I know someone who calls this her "force field"), in order to save themselves from further pain. Others don't even notice that their hearts are becoming stony. It happens so slowly and insidiously that they are shocked when others point out that they no longer seem to care.  However it occurs, this hardening eventually takes its toll and we pay the price in the irritability,  brittleness, reactivity, cynicism and emotional fragility that are hallmarks of Compassion Fatigue.

So, how is it with you right now? Is your heart so hard that, instead of feeling protected, you are shattered by any bad call, hard session or emotionally intense event? Are you wondering where the caring person inside you has gone? Are you wishing you could soften your heart and become the person you used to be? Are you afraid to try for fear of being shamed in a workplace culture that only seems to value strength and toughness?

In the next post we will look at some useful practices for beginning to soften our hearts ( - just in time for Valentines Day!).


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