Compassion

Compassion

This is a presentation I made at the close of a program called The Phoenix Project. It is directed by Dr. Jack Miller, a Jungian trained therapist. My participation in The Phoenix Project has been an important part of healing my experiences as an MK who grew up in the Alliance Academy in Quito, Ecuador.

The Phoenix Project — Ritual Elder Presentation
by Irma Emery
April 25, 2009 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

I did the Phoenix Project two years ago in Costa Rica. When Jack asked me if I would like to co-direct this project, I jumped at the chance. When he said I would be making a presentation this evening, I thought long and hard about what to say. He suggested that I tell you what my participation has meant to me personally. I think it crystallizes into one single word — compassion.

I looked up the word and its synonyms. They include kindness, mercy. I usually think of compassion as something I feel for another, even something I bestow on a person less fortunate than me, but maybe that is just pity. Over these 12 weeks, I have come to a deeper understanding of compassion.

Before I go on, however, let me tell you a little bit about my background. In some ways I was born to privilege. Like the President of the United States, I am a TCK — that's a "third country kid" which means that I had the privilege of living in another country, knowing a different culture and leaning a second language. However, it is our losses in life, those deep wounds that lie deep and hidden, that also shape who we become and the decisions that we make.

At age seven I was sent to a boarding school where, unfortunately, abuse of all kinds happened. Most of my childhood was spent separated, sometimes by a continent away, from my parents and my siblings. No place — not a house, a town, or even a country — was permanently my home. There was no one around who was going to protect me. By the age of 10 I had been robbed of my innocence and I decided that to survive in this world, one had to be tough, independent and self-sufficient. That decision shaped my personality and many of the life choice I have made since. I had little tolerance for human frailties, others or my own.

After high school I was on my own. I worked my way through college. I had a brief marriage and a very, very long divorce. We had one child, a son, who was only a year old when we separated. The aftermath of the divorce dragged on for many years to come. I raised my son as a single mom in New York City without financial or emotional support.

One day, during the course of this project, Ande and I were walking through the Japanese gardens at The Morakami. There was a storm cloud overhead but I was confident that if it rained it would only be a brief shower. I was wrong — it rained and rained, not one of our Florida downpours but rather a constant, steady rain. We took cover under a small overhang. While we stood there getting quite soaked these lines, memorized as a child, came into my mind:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I wondered who had written it so I checked on the Internet and found that it was no less than William Shakespeare himself in the Merchant of Venice. The poem kept playing over and over in my mind like one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head.

One of the activities that we do during the Phoenix Project is called Shadow Night. Some of you are probably familiar about the Jungian concept of The Shadow — the unfulfilled part of ourselves which is frequently just the opposite of what we manifest. Jack identifies each person's Shadow and we go out on a Saturday night, to a very public place, dressed in a costume depicting our Shadow and enacting that personality throughout the evening. In the Phoenix Project, co-directors don't usually go out with the participants on Shadow Night but Jack sent me out as an innocent, young girl who shows compassion for everyone around her. I think you can get the contrast between the TCK and my Shadow.

It might not come as a surprise that no one thought I was 12 years old. But, I know one thing for certain: I found an unrealized, unfulfilled part of myself that night that I can now own for the rest of my life. You see, Shakespeare was right, mercy and compassion are not strained. They are not forced and do fall softly like a gentle rain. And, it does bless both the one who gives it and the one who receives it.

Remember I said I had a long divorce? I think you will agree that 40 years is a pretty long time. There came a moment, however, during this journey that I experienced the healing power of compassion and was able to see a truth about my divorce I had never been able to see before. It was simply this: my ex-husband was not to blame for anything he had done and there was nothing I could have done to change things. I saw that I could hold him — and myself — with compassion. In that moment it was as though a light shown in the room where Jack and I were sitting and a long held, heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders. In that moment, mercy/compassion fell from heaven and indeed blessed the one who gave and one who received.

Now, old habits die hard and time will tell, but I have found in the subsequent weeks since that moment of truth that I respond differently to things that in the past would set me off. And when something does raise my hackles, I can stop and listen to the Bard's words about the quality of mercy.

Jack says many times that the Phoenix Project provides an opportunity to bring forth a new way of being. For me the new way is the way of compassion, a different way to look out into the world, and, a new set of eyes to see myself.

I would like to leave you with a poem that sums up, more eloquently than I ever could, what the Phoenix Project has meant to me. It is called Love After Love by Derek Walcott.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.