Compassion is at the heart of Christian and Buddhist teachings, and yet compassion is one of the most challenging spiritual practices to develop. As we have entered our 40’s the reality of our aging parents is upon us. For six months of the year my father-in-law travels from India to live here in the United States—three months at our home and three months at his youngest son’s home. His routine, customs, and eating habits are very different than ours, but normally we coexist fairly well. This year during his visit he began to experience pain in his mouth. What would have been perhaps a routine visit for most Americans turned into a summer long project for “Appa’s smile”.
Appa wears a hearing aid and his mother tongue is an Indian language called “Tamil.” So to help the dentist and Appa communicate, I would sit in the exam room for each visit doing my best to translate for both the doctor and for my father-in-law. These visits would last any where from 3 to 6 hours as he needed to have major reconstructive work done on his teeth. With every extraction, root canal, bridge and cap, I saw and felt each twinge of pain Appa experienced. I witnessed the great care the dentist made to prevent and ease the pain as it occurred—administering extra numbing agents, giving breaks as needed, and explaining each step in the process before it happened. It was a compassionate dance like no other I have seen. This was not easy for me and the hours could be long at times, but what emerged in the process was something remarkable for us all.
Sitting for me can be painful in many ways. I have chronic pain in my back that I manage on a daily basis. Additionally, I am easily bored and I prefer to walk around rather than stay in one place. This was not possible in the small dental room. Each day we entered, the dental assistant would place a small chair in the corner of the room facing Appa and the dentist. I could not leave, I could not stand, I could not ignore the meticulous work unfolding before my eyes. It was during these hours that I took the time to practice bringing compassion to others whose smiles were not as bright as they could be.
I take for granted my smile, and my ability to laugh out loud with confidence as a way of sharing in the joy of life. Those who have dental issues make it a habit to keep their smiles tightly closed—especially tight lipped in all photos. Many of us fear to go to the dentist because of the pain we would have to endure. But I believe it is not the pain we fear, it is the suffering that we dread. Our anxiety about the pain, about the suffering we may feel, escalates the suffering all the more. Our thoughts about the pain cause suffering. It is possible to have pain and not experience suffering—though it takes mindfulness.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, in the midst of his own pain, he reached out to care for others. He carried on a conversation with the two men being crucified on either side of him. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus said to his dearest disciple and friend John and the mother of Jesus, “Woman here is your son” binding them together as a new family. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays for his persecutors, “Father they know not what they do.” Each of these are examples of the compassion of Christ. While certainly he experienced pain, he did not suffer in the ways we so often do when our thoughts are preoccupied with worry and anxiety. Those thoughts are worse than the pain itself—they create our suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition a monk dedicates his life to bringing enlightenment to all sentient beings. Buddhist spiritual practices includes using meditation and one’s daily circumstances to transform one’s own pain into the power to bring healing to others. For example, while I was sitting in the dentist exam room watching the most painful root canal unfolding, I imagined others in the world who were suffering with the same condition. I imagined that they might have a compassionate person there with them as they worked hard to heal their mouth. I sent words of thanksgiving to the dentists and doctors, assistants and technicians who spend hours on their feet to bring health and wholeness to others. It was in those moments that I was able to let go of my own suffering.
As the summer came to an end and we prepared to say our “good-byes” to Appa, I saw him smile a joyful full-toothed smile that I had never seen. He demonstrated a remarkable strength of character and vulnerability to share what lay behind that tight-lipped smile with his daughter-in-law of 15 years. It is a priceless gift we gave each other, an intimate experience of shared pain without suffering. We took that long road together and in the end his smile tells the whole story.
Taking care of our aging parents is not easy. As I write this, I am preparing to travel to Florida to accompany my mother during an elaborate spinal surgery. Her condition is delicate and filled with many obstacles in the way of her own recovery. While I cannot prevent her from experiencing pain, I believe I can bring compassion to her healing process. Perhaps by practicing the same mindfulness, the same kind of prayers and meditations, my time with her will help to bring health and wholeness to other families who are caring for their aging parents.
May you learn the art of compassion and transform your own suffering into the healing of the community around you.
Blessings and Peace,
PS: Next week’s topic, “Thinking Thanksgiving—Vegetarian Style!”