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Lions Roar : July 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2009 62 compassion means caring for everyone, including yourself. it contains the irony of separating yourself from someone else even as you acknowledge that you are not separate. it means saying, “this is all i can do.” in The Places That Scare You, pema chödrön says, “in order not to break our vow of compassion, we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. there are times when the only way to bring down barriers is to set boundaries.” One day, i had a breakthrough with Julia. i went over to her apartment to work through her horrible finances. She wanted to be heard, like everyone else. So i let her talk. But i didn’t con- fuse compassion with enabling. that was the tricky part for me: knowing that understanding how someone feels does not mean that i have to take care of them, or do everything for them, or even condone their behavior. i felt so sad for Julia, with her constrained finances and her con- strained life. She couldn’t think straight or make any more money, and she knew it. during meditation, i contemplated compassion and understanding, detached from the conviction that i was re- sponsible for fixing the misery. i could understand her fear and rage, without knowing what, if anything, i could do about it. Julia called one evening with paranoid delusions about the re- tirement community management. She said they didn’t think she was who she said she was. if one should ever doubt that thoughts aren’t real, here’s the proof. Julia’s fears were reflecting off the walls of her skull as reality. “i’m angry” turned into “everyone is out to get me.” “i don’t know who i am anymore” became “they don’t believe i am who i say i am.” i just listened and said i’d vouch for her if anyone questioned her identity. flight research #5 A photograph by rosemary laing. An Australian stuntwoman wearing a white wedding dress is suspended in flight against a bright blue sky. despite all this newly acquired wisdom, i was not really out of the woods. My flashes of compassion were overwhelmed by Ju- lia’s demands, the orchestrated crises, the angry phone calls. finally, i saw a therapist, who suggested there was a reason i’d chosen to be in this pickle. Here was an opportunity to un- derstand my own part in the situation. the therapist suggested i stop being the caretaker; i’d done enough. Others had said they would help out, but since i’d assumed responsibility, they hadn’t needed to. What did i want my role to be? i steeled myself to talk with Julia. i even wrote what i was going to say on an index card. i told her that feeling responsible for her was very difficult for me and that it contributed to the tension be- tween us. i could still help her with financial problems and medi- cal appointments, but couldn’t she think of other people to call on for other things? i mentioned a few names. She said she didn’t like this person and didn’t trust that person. i let that be her problem. She said i didn’t have to feel responsible, that other people were making me feel responsible. i let that one go. We appeared to part on good terms and to have a new under- standing. i felt immediately freed. i saw how much i’d contributed to the situation by acquiescing to the role of servant. i saw that, rath- er than stonily withdrawing, i could tell Julia what i was feeling. Of course, Julia turned our conversation into a different story. She called her goddaughter, who in turn called me to ask if it was really true that i’d have nothing more to do with Julia, and that i had refused to help her out. Julia continued to spin fanciful tales of how i just wanted her money and i couldn’t be trusted. My phone calls and visits were met with frosty silence. during meditation, i contemplated change. relationships change. they change the people involved in them. the people change, independent of the relationship. We arrive at a new un- derstanding or reach an impasse. What endures? the hardest thing of all is to change the dynamic you already have with someone else, especially if they’re not willing participants in the change. Julia was perfectly pleased when i was in the servant role. changing this had provoked her outrage. dementia was her trump card. She interpreted my bid for independence as abandon- ment. She couldn’t change, but i had to. it tore me up to pull away from her. it was an excruciating exercise in turning my back on