Compassion, Gratitude and the Danger of Attachment

by Anna

In any caring profession there is a certain risk of attachment. So far I have been meticulously avoiding this potential pit fall. I deliver excellent care and am always helpful, friendly, supportive and ensure that everyone is happy and settled before I leave work. As soon as my shift is over, however, I would literally sneak out without any big goodbyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of my patients wanting to thank me and wish me well. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with the accompanying emotions.

However, there is one thing that falls to the wayside if you avoid gratitude and a healthy amount of attachment: compassion.

The Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” whereas I would rather put it down as the “unconditional love of all things”.

I always thought I carried a good portion of compassion as part of my general repertoire but it wasn’t until only recently that I discovered a deeper sense of it. I couldn’t possibly tell what exactly brought this on, whether it was merely life experience or a deeper understanding of human behaviour, but I suddenly noticed a deep glowing sensation in my chest when I looked at random people. It would suddenly happen in the supermarket, on the street, at a meeting, anywhere and everywhere. I found myself looking at someone and it felt like I was looking right into their very being. I saw loveable, honourable beings that  deserve nothing less than what I would expect for myself. Behind any mask of age, covered by fear, hidden by an illness lies an exceptional personality that wants to shine through. And I have encountered on numerous occasions how a gaunt face suddenly turned into a sparkling smile because you accepted them for who they are, not for what their appearance or condition suggests.

Compassion can not be taught. And not everyone develops a deep sense of it. Some sadly just don’t have a sense for it at all. For many it will never be more than a friendly smile. I began with a friendly smile. It now is a glow in my chest. I wonder what it will develop into over the next decade.

Working in a healthcare setting is not always easy. We work under enormous pressure  posed upon us by the mere limit of hours in a day and the ever present negative press in the news. Patients come in all kinds of demeanour; short and tall, kind and aggressive, young and old, happy and fearful, compos mentis and disoriented. We have them all and our duty is to care for them all. This we do with our best intentions. However, it isn’t always enough and I realised that I can’t possibly always please everyone. There is always someone or something that hasn’t been dealt with as much as it should have been done. You learn to sort your priorities. This was one of the aspects that stopped me from developing compassion for a long time. I basically cut myself off from getting too involved in order to not keep feeling so disappointed if I wouldn’t be able to do it all.

Over the past few days I have been looking after the same set of patients. I got on really well with all of them, they were a great bunch of people. I loved every minute of my busy shift and I did anything in my power to make their day as good as it can be away from home in a room shared with six patients. And they were all sincerely grateful for my support, they said it openly. I am beginning to learn to accept gratitude. It is a tough lesson for me. Again I used to just let it wash over me by shrugging it of as if it wasn’t needed. Today I managed to mumble at least a “thank you” to the comment “you were a rock!” but still find it difficult to make eye contact – oh the overwhelming emotions…

I can see their faces as if they were still in front of me and I notice that I keep wondering if they are alright despite knowing that the night staff have taken over. To me it feels like having made friends while away on a holiday camp (what a fantastic way to describe work!). I have clearly formed an attachment to them. To a certain degree this is okay. But I am in danger of attaching myself too much which will result in a feeling of loss when they are gone. This I have been managing well so far. There is a fine line between compassion and attachment. I have noticed before in private situations that people misunderstand my compassion as more than just friendliness. Men would be inclined to think I was interested in more than just friendship and girls would think I was their next best friend. This is a tricky one for me to suss out. How can I be practicing compassion without being sucked into other’s lives and problems? And how do you say to someone without upsetting them that you don’t want to be friends but were simply just friendly? It seems to be generally accepted to practice compassion when wearing a monk’s robe but if you are “just a lay person” you can get into all sorts of trouble.

I love my job. I absolutely do! There are bad days, there are good days but either way I know that I have made a difference to a lot of people. But to take credit for it and accept someone’s praise is beyond me. Maybe I am just too modest, or I simply have serious self-confidence issues. Having discussed the topic of how we end things in a counselling course I realised that by sneaking out without a farewell it isn’t just me who misses out on the valuable experience of receiving gratitude but it is also my patients that are being prevented from expressing their feelings. I attempted a “goodnight boys” at the end of my shift the last two evenings in an attempt to provoke my “modesty”. It felt odd, but it surely is only the beginning to a new chapter of accepting myself.