Sean Brophy : Our natural impulse for compassion will help us through crisis
How do you feel as you enter another year of recession? Do you feel dispirited, betrayed by your leaders, angry about the past and anxious about the future? How will you cope in 2013?
There are no easy answers and everyone's circumstances are different, but every one of us has choices in how we will cope, with some routes leading to further anxiety, despair and even suicide. Alternatively, we can reflect on the deep wellsprings of wisdom to be found in our traditions, religious and secular, which point to more constructive and fulfilling options for ourselves, and those around us.
At the core of the accumulated 'wisdom of the ages' there is agreement that the fundamental reason for our very existence is to give life, to our selves and others, in our unique way, through the values of love and compassion.
Compassion represents the pinnacle of human development and personal well-being. Compassion can awaken hope and resilience in a suffering person. We see the giving of life through compassion daily in our families, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, social services, and between friends and neighbours. But what if you are caring for another but suffering yourself; if after six years of painful cuts you are "running on empty"? What options do you have?
1. You can give in and suffer badly. This option is rational if the suffering is in a good cause and it doesn't last long. But carried on too long it can result in a person retreating into him or herself, losing vitality, becoming sad and depressed. Expression is one antidote to depression. People suffering in silence, who may be at risk of suicide, should be encouraged to talk to friends, relatives, Samaritans, Pieta House or other sources of support.
2. You can get out and avoid suffering. You may be free to emigrate or change jobs. However, this choice is not available to most people in Ireland with an unemployment rate of 14.8 per cent, and the same resource problems everywhere. For reasons outlined below, the nurse coping with a ward of sick people at 2.30am with diminishing support can't walk away. The staff at the Capuchin Day Centre in Bow Street, Dublin, who feed 1,600 people every day won't walk away.
3. You can relieve your suffering by changing your view of your "self". You may have little influence over the resources available, but you have control over how you react to adversity. Viktor Frankl said: "Pain is inevitable in life; suffering is a choice." You can choose to
be miserable and suffer badly if you can't avoid it, or you can suffer well and transcend your experience. Frankl's experience at Auschwitz demonstrates that the human spirit can transcend the most awful circumstances. If the "why" is important enough we can endure any "how". Ask any person caring for a loved one at home, like an elderly parent, sick partner or special needs child, and suffering the hardship of diminishing supports, how they keep going, and they'll give you the "why" – because they love them, because they want to "give life" to them. They don't see themselves as victims; rather they feel privileged to love in this way. They don't want sympathy. Rather, they deserve our support for their compassion and heroism.
You are personally responsible for your own decisions during the Celtic Tiger years, but you are not responsible for a recession with multiple causes and multiple impacts on you.
You may react with sadness, anger and resentment towards those you blame for your circumstances but blaming others will give you only temporary relief. Alternately, you can decline to take the adversity personally. It has nothing to do with you. You didn't cause it, but you have to cope with it. By the same token, the people you care for didn't cause the recession. They should not suffer by losing out on your compassion.
4. You can relieve your suffering by changing your view of your situation.
You can let your adversity poison your entire life, or contain it to its proper context and limit its effects. For example, there is little that you can do to limit the effects of increased taxes or cuts in public services, except through collective action via the political system. But you can get on with your life.
Many people are suffering real hardship in Ireland but as a nation we are not enduring a war or famine, where millions lose their lives. All recessions end sometime. So will this one. We need to be mindful of when life is OK; then we can be grateful. It's impossible to be unhappy and grateful at the same time. We can be grateful for the gift of life, our physical and mental well-being, the support of our family and friends and the wonders of nature that surround us.
We are a strong people, who have shown our resilience over centuries. This recession won't crush us; rather it will show what we are made of, either a crowd of selfish individuals or a supportive community. This Christmas in particular, we need to sustain our natural impulse for love and compassion for those who are suffering, to support the weakest members of our community as we crawl out of the economic trough we sleep-walked into six years ago.
Let the words of St Francis be our motto for 2013: "It is in giving that we receive."
Sean Brophy is an author and organisation development consultant.