Compassion is offering care to other. We show compassion to our children when we help them grow and develop, assisting them with things they cannot do for themselves. Seeing an unmet need, we fill the gap. When do you fill the gap for yourself?
It seems it is so easy to put ourselves at the bottom of the priority list. We give for our children, our spouses, our friends, our jobs, our churches, our schools. There are so many needs and they are so pressing and urgent. At times it can be a struggle to be enough. Compassion, like any muscle that is over-used, can tire and be stretched too far. Compassion fatigue is the inability to continue to offer care at the level previously provided. It is hard to continually offer compassion to others when we do not even offer it to ourselves. When you reach the point where you cannot see your way to the bottom of your to-do list, does self-talk criticize that you reached your limit? Do you drive yourself to dig in and do yet more? Self-compassion is the recognition of your own need for help and nurture and respite.
I think as Christians some may feel they are called to give selflessly and endlessly, but the Bible models for us self-compassion and self-care even in the midst of caring for others. In Matthew 14, John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Mat 14:13-14 NRS). Jesus tried to set aside time for himself, perhaps to mourn the death of his cousin, perhaps to move farther from the reach of Herod, perhaps to avoid crowds drawing attention to him. But the people have heard where he is going and they race there ahead of him. His opportunity for respite turned into an opportunity for compassion and healing. When the evening came there was no food. His disciples urged him to send the crowds away so they could get food in the local villages. Instead, Jesus multiplied the five loaves of bread and the two fish and fed them all.
So where does the self-compassion and self-care come in? Isn’t this an example of self-care gone wrong with life interrupting and taking away the chance for respite? Here is the rest of the story, “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:22-23 NRS). Though Jesus’ plan for respite was interrupted, but the end of the day he made the time for it. He took care of the pressing needs of the crowd and the disciples and then sent them both away so that he could be alone to pray. Was this to recharge spiritually? Did he rest while alone to recharge physically? Did he grieve for John during his time of prayer, processing emotions of loss? Scripture does not tell us. What we do know is that Jesus offered to himself the same compassion he offered to others. Being both human and divine, he knew his human limit and made self-care a priority, even in the midst of tremendous pressure. It may be easy to think the needs of our families are just too much for us to take a break, but could the needs of our families really compare to the needs and expectations laid on Jesus?
Taking time for self-care does not mean we are weak nor selfish nor incapable. It means we are human and the same need for compassion that we see in others is a need that we have too.