This last weekend I attended a training held at one of my favorite places, a local Trappist Abbey. The first morning, before it started, I took a walk by the ponds. The morning felt a little damp with a low fog, making everything a little mysterious.
As I walked between the two ponds, there was a large splash across the largest pond, and an animal of some sort was swimming straight towards me. I could not identify it and wondered if it was a dog with an owner close by. My eyes scanned the fields behind the creature, but I only saw another dog, possibly a coyote. I began to wonder what was going on - this felt very surreal. What was swimming directly towards me? What do I do? Should I be concerned?
I kept watching the creature, still unable to identify it except to recognize it was large with huge ears that stood straight up. The rest of its body was completely submerged in the water. It continued to swim directly toward me. As it came closer, I could tell it was a deer. I have never seen a deer swim before.
The doe stepped out of the water about 3 to 4 feet away from where I was standing. Her front right leg was severely wounded. It looked like it was broken and entirely out of place. It seemed swollen and painful. She pulled herself out of the water and stood on 3 legs while surveying the space around her noticing my close proximity.
Across the pond, I could now identify the coyote jumping around looking for a way to get to its intended next meal. It moved quickly and came around the same side of the pond where the deer and I stood. Further down the path it crouched, watching and waiting for what the deer would do next - would she run, would she come towards it, what would she do?
The doe’s little heart must have been beating with fear as she navigated what to do with this strange person close by, a coyote closing down on her, and the Abbey presenting a place of safety ahead. Her brown eyes connected with mine and my heart was filled with compassion for her predicament. I could tell her leg wasn’t something that would heal on its own, it needed to be reset to be functional again. All I could say as she slowly walked by was, “I’m sorry baby, I’m so sorry.”
As the deer slowly walked in front of me and past my right side, the coyote watched from its crouched and ready position. I stepped between the two out of instinct. This obvious, expected process of the natural circle of life would not happen on my watch. The doe walked up towards the safety of the Abbey and the coyote, recognizing its defeat, turned and walked away. My heart was drawn to compassion for this beautiful coyote losing its prey.
As I have reflected on this surreal experience and my training at the Abbey this last weekend, I began to see a parallel in what I saw and what I experienced. In one session, my own story was triggered by something someone else had brought. I was able to do what I needed to do in my role, but my heart felt a harshness in the experience, a lack of compassion for myself. Sometimes we need to do what is before us and take care of how it makes us feel at another time. Yet, being careful to notice the pain that can get triggered is not only essential to notice but also essential to hold with compassion, grace, and love. We can actually do both at the same time. Being present and having compassion are not opposites and do not preclude one another.
The woundedness of the deer, her deep pain, fear, without any hope of the situation changing reminds me of the pain I felt being triggered during the session. The pain and the triggered experience doesn’t define me, as the wounded leg doesn’t define the doe, yet it is an invitation for compassion. We are invited to recognize, acknowledge the painful parts inside of us with an intention to return in a safe spaciousness, to hold the pain with compassion, grace, and love.
How do we do that? Well, for starters, we do it very imperfectly. We can recognize and become more tolerant of the tension we experience in discovering a place of pain, either in us or in those around us. I tend to try to fix whatever I discover inside myself. But what if it can’t be remedied so quickly? What if the gift of embracing the pain is the invitation? Instead of fixing or covering over what we discover we allow it to do the work in us. If the journey of spiritual formation, this growing in our understanding of our own belovedness, is about letting go, then we let go of the escape or numbing practices we may have and hold ourselves and those around us with compassion, being present to what we discover.
Doing so doesn’t make us stuck in a victim mode either. Being a victim or a martyr isn’t a place of compassion. True compassion doesn’t rescue or fix anyone, but it is about walking alongside while feeling with the other, even ourselves. It is treating one another and ourselves with kindness. When we try to reduce or fix an issue, it is usually about us being uncomfortable with the tension. Can we hold the tension of not being able to fix it? I didn’t fix the issue for the deer but only gave it space to live another day.
Sometimes, there are things we can do to fix the systemic issues that cause places of pain. Stepping in the middle of this natural cycle of life delayed it for another day. Both coyotes and deer deserve to live, and the natural circle of life isn’t something to fix. Yet, there are many kinds of systemic injustices in our culture that do invite us to step in the way of what seems like a natural consequence.
I believe holding pain with compassion is the ground of being able to step into places to fix systemic issues without making enemies of the other side, those who disagree with us. The coyote wasn’t doing anything but being a coyote, the way it was created to live. The coyote deserves our compassion too. The question I have been considering is who in my, your, world is an invitation for compassion today?
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!