"I can't believe you told me my introversion is just sad! That was just so mean!" she exclaims, with anger and hurt in her eyes.
I don't know how to respond. I don't think I said that. I don't remember saying it, anyway, and it wasn't what I meant to say. But as we talk, she recites word-for-word the hurtful things I've said to her in the past few months, things I can't remember saying, and I feel my face heating with shame.
Shame because I'm supposed to be more compassionate than that. "You're so nice!" people always say to me when they first meet me, or when they're just getting to know me. "I love that you are always so understanding toward others!" And I want to be kind – compassion is not only my core value, but my stated motivation for almost everything I do.
But my secret, my horrible despicable secret, is that I'm not actually nice. I wasn't one of those children everyone says should be a nurse because of my overwhelming compassion for injured animals and sad peers; that was my sister. I was opinionated and logical, but not compassionate. I told my father to his face that he was "just a sperm donor" when I was 13. At 14 I didn't attend my great-grandmother's funeral, even though it would have meant a lot to my mom, because I had a dance show that was more important to me. From 16 to 18 I fought with my mom almost every day, even knowing how much distress it caused my little sister to live in a house where the people she loved were screaming obscenities at each other. And I was elitist. I was smarter than almost everyone in my town, in my head at least, and that made me better. Born motivated, I was at a loss to understand why my sister and my friends couldn't pass tests I could ace without studying for, and I wrote long, gratuitous rants in my journal about how they weren't actually trying. I was that awful person who thought, if never outright said, "Just get over it - stop whining!" when my friends struggled with issues like depression and anxiety.
I think that's why being abused was so formative for me. Suddenly I understood what it was like to be a victim, to be despondent, to be anxious and terrified, to be so depressed you don't care if you live but you don't care enough to die. I walked out of that experience with this sudden well of deep compassion for people and their problems, and it was wonderful.
As the aftereffects of being abused are receding from my life, though, I'm finding that compassion isn't the first thing I feel anymore when people tell me their problems, at least not consistently. I'm feeling more annoyed when people complain; I'm losing patience for my mother, who constantly complains to me about my father and how terrible he's being but doesn't do anything to fix her situation. I judge people more harshly than I used to when I first meet them. And it's disgusting and sad to find that I have to reach further to find compassion, that I have to consciously redirect my thoughts now to see others' perspectives. I don't want to be a victim all my life, obviously, but I also don't want to be an asshole. Compassion is so important – and true compassion can't be faked, or if it can, I'm no good at it (I'm a horrible liar). As with my friend, what I was really trying to express was that I was sad that she wanted to spend less time hanging out with me, but I was also losing compassion for her real issues, and it came out in the callous and cruel way I worded what I said.
I don't know that there is an easy solution for this, but I do know that I have a moral obligation, as well as a strong desire, to be kind to others; otherwise, what's the point of anything? So I guess I start here, with an attempt at honesty and humility. I am not as nice a person as I wish I was. I have mean and unsympathetic thoughts about people when they don't deserve it, and sometimes I say mean and unsympathetic things to people I dearly love, and feel justified instead of ashamed. I haven't figured out how to change this yet, but after I write my negative, biased rants in my journal, I'm going to try to pretend to be the people I'm being so unfair to. I might not have been born with as much compassion as I wish I had, but maybe compassion can be cultivated.