Learning Compassion

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

The other day, I was thinking back over the tragic deaths of many of my family members. And I thought about how I felt towards people a few decades ago when they suffered various illnesses or struggled with disease or addiction. I didn’t have much compassion because I hadn’t ever experienced those types of painful and heart-wrenching needs myself or in anyone I loved.

But in 2000, when my younger brother was in intensive care for two months on a ventilator and in a coma, I began to learn about the sorrow and desperation that hover around situations like this – for the one who is ill and for those who love them and who cannot do a thing to help or change the outcome. His diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and slow but impending death broke my heart – maybe for the first time in my life.

Then in 2009, when my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancers and I went to care for her in the last weeks of her life, I came to understand more of what someone feels as they vacillate between hope and despair on a daily basis. Someone in the prime of life now bed-ridden, unable to speak or eat or drink for her final weeks of life. A further lesson in empathy and compassion.

When my son died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, not only did my heart shatter to pieces, but all the regrets and what-ifs and missed opportunities to help change the trajectory of his life piled on top of each other, crushing all desire to go on living in a world without him. What has been the result of all those regrets? What would I change if I could go back in time to even just the year before his death? I would try to put myself in his place – walk a mile in his shoes. Try to understand the challenges he faced in overcoming his addictions, the shame that constantly undermined all his hopes and desires to be clean, sober, and free from the enemy within – the one no one could see but that was taking his life and stealing his future one relapse at a time.

For those of us who live with addiction in our families, we have a fine line to walk between compassion and enabling. It was one my husband and I constantly struggled with but one where we ended up short-changing compassion. We didn’t understand how desperately our son wanted to be free, which kept us from empathizing with his struggles and helping him get the medication assisted treatment that could have changed his life. It is a lasting regret we live with.

As we approach Easter this year, as a follower of Jesus, I am reflecting on why Christianity is the one religion where the god suffered and died. Why the God-Man had to experience suffering. Why he had to become human – to incarnate himself, to take on the living embodiment of women and men. One reason was so that he could experience the frailty of humanity, including suffering. By this, he learned compassion in order to better empathize with our suffering and weaknesses and offer us compassion.

The difficulty comes when we know he could relieve our suffering in some way but doesn’t. Why? Many times, it is so that we can learn compassion in the only way that will help us become compassionate to others. Because, like it or not, we live in a fallen world, where sorrow, sickness and death are part of life and co-exist alongside joy, health, and life.

No one person can experience all the ways people suffer in this world. But we can learn and grow in compassion through the unique experiences in our own life and then offer empathy to others in loving and wise ways. I want the compassionate area of my heart to enlarge in order to help comfort others.

Addiction Constriction

John Leif Trang – March 10, 1989 – August 2, 2014

(Translation into most languages at tab on right)

On March 10th, our son would have been celebrating his 33rd birthday. That day is now a painful reminder of all the potentials and possibilities that a young person should be experiencing in the 4th decade of their life.

After JL died of a heroin overdose in 2014, I began the dreaded process of sorting through his belongings – which included his computer and phone. Many of the photos on his phone I had never seen and some have now become permanently seared into my visual memory. One is of JL with a Boa wrapped around his shoulders and neck.

Boas are constrictors. Constrictors don’t chase their prey. They are ambush hunters. A boa grabs its prey with its teeth, then quickly coils its body around the prey and squeezes. It doesn’t break the bones – it constricts so tightly that its prey can’t breathe. With each exhale, it tightens its coils until its prey dies slowly from an overwhelmed circulatory system due to blood not getting to the brain. Once dead, the snake swallows its prey whole.

Continue reading “Addiction Constriction”

Who Is My Neighbor?

(Sixteenth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)

(I am re-posting this blog due to a glitch on some platforms in January)

In 2020, overdose deaths have increased worldwide, and by as much as 25% in the US. Deaths from acute intoxication have also increased dramatically. People are isolated and anxious, their treatment and recovery programs have been disrupted, and the illicit drug supply has become dangerous. Health officials believe that the majority of these deaths have occurred because hospitals are full and emergency services are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, thus removing the urgent, lifesaving care of overdose reversal that has been established in the past few years. Funding for all mental health services has also been diverted to pandemic care, which has complicated access to basic resources. Suicides are rising at an alarming rate.

A conversation that I believe is relevant to the current times came to mind this week. A lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” as he was trying to wriggle out of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him about a man beaten and robbed while on a journey. As the man lay almost dead on the road, he was passed by several religious leaders who refused to help him. Then a man, who was not the same nationality or religion, came and bandaged and rescued him and paid for his care until he was well. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these men proved to be a neighbor?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed compassion.” Jesus responded, “Go and do the same.” *

Continue reading “Who Is My Neighbor?”
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