is compassion a cure-all for our most profound fears?

a statue on the black sand beach of Vik, Iceland. photo by me.

my girlfriend asked me the other night what my ultimate fear was, barring any cliche or altogether common phobia's like heights, spiders, or public speaking. she wanted to dig down and uncover the gritty, uncomfortable stuff. what’s the most profound fear of my very being?

my initial replies were that i feared i wouldn’t be successful, or that i wouldn’t have enough money when i become a senior, or that i'd be falsely accused and incarcerated for a crime i didn’t commit, or that i’d suffer a horrible death in a twisted mess of a car crash, or that i might be diagnosed with an invasive disease that slowly ate away all of my physical faculties.

i was forced to confront all the things that lurked in the darkened corners of my psyche, things that none of us like to explore or admit.

it dawned on me that my biggest fear was probably of being alone for the rest of my life, of not being loved, of slowly withering away as a sad and lonely old man.

i came to realize however that my ultimate fear isn't that i won’t be loved, it's that i won't be lovable. sure, it’s a subtle difference, one many might ignore, but i believe it points to a deeper truth about the nature of my self.

so that’s my final answer that i came up with. apparently my ultimate fear is that i’m not capable of being truly loved. ouch.

it’s not that i’m afraid of being alone, it’s that i’m afraid i’ll be alone because i’m not worthy of another person’s love. i’m afraid i’ll be discarded and cast away as tainted goods, that no one will want me, that i’ll be branded with a red X and tossed aside.

i’m aware this fear might be a by-product of being a middle-aged divorced man with a couple of failed relationships stuffed under my broken wing, however i do have love in my life. i am loved, and i love deeply in return. in fact, i’m the happiest i’ve ever been. yet when i probe my darkest fears, this is what surfaces to the top; that i’m not worthy of what i already have.

regardless of all the commitments or vows that are made, no love is guaranteed to last. no relationship is risk-free. no one can ever honestly promise anything forever. all things fade, and this is what embodies my fear: losing the love i have, and being left so utterly shattered and broken that i'm no longer capable of receiving (or giving) love ever again.

isn’t this a fear that hides in the back of most of our minds though?

we all want to be loved, it’s an innately human trait. we need it. we crave it. in fact, it’s smack-dab in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. we feel elated when we have it, and we’re often crushed when we don’t. but if we feel like we’re wholly incapable of love, then we've convinced ourselves that one of our most essential needs will never be be met. we then fear our soul will starve, that we'll never find comfort through a lover's empathy, compassion, concern, or care. we’ll be left out in the cold, with no shelter for our spirit, with no partner to ever be consoled by. we’ll never feel the warmth of a loving, passionate embrace.

aren’t we all fearful we’ll be emotionally starved some day?

we fear our hearts will become scarred. we’re afraid we’ll sink inwards and become an empty shell of what we were. we pity ourselves and become a victim. we fear our insides will blacken from all the hurt we’ve treaded through and had to endure. we fear we'll be tasted and spit back out, rejected, never to be tasted by anyone's love ever again.

we fear our love will spoil and turn rotten.

i feel no shame in admitting this. i have a strong hunch it’s no different than what's hiding inside most everyone, but how we can heal this common fear of ours?

it begins with having compassion for yourself. after all, if you can't love yourself, then how can anyone else?

self-love is a touchy topic for many. it causes the hairs to bristle as it sends shivers of discomfort down your spine. cynics might laugh and condescendingly brush it off as nothing more than woo-woo, hippie nonsense. self-compassion? pfft! but if you're comfortable with who you are and how you act, if you're open-hearted, gracious, giving, honest and are confident in your ideals, then it only makes sense that others will like you. you’ll be likeable. you’ll be a bright light in a darkened room. you’ll be loveable.

but if you loathe yourself and are stewing in anger, resentment and shame, then you’ll be overcome by your own negativity. your bitterness will rub others the wrong way. you’ll end up treating yourself as if you're unworthy of receiving anything good, and then you’ll convince yourself of it through harmful behaviours since you no longer care, and this is exactly what i did for many years. your lack of love for yourself will send you down a path of self-destruction, not a very loveable trait someone would want to share.

some people can hardly look in the mirror because they’re so overwhelmed by guilt, anger, resentment or shame. if you can't stand to spend time with yourself, then why would anyone else want to either?

we’ve blocked our potential for love and honest relationships by not being open and vulnerable, with both ourselves and others. if we’re always on the defensive and think everyone is out to wound us, then we’ll never find the companionship we crave.

we've become so hardened in hopes of protecting ourselves from emotional hurt that we’ve completely closed ourselves off from feeling anything at all, whether it be good or bad.

we’ve taken our stoicism too far.

we must love ourselves and care for our own well-being first. we must begin the process of healing ourselves from all the things we secretly dislike about ourselves. having compassion for yourself means quitting smoking, finally putting an end to abusing drinking or drugs. it means taking better care of your body, health and mind. it means confronting your addictions to gambling, shopping, sex, lying, stealing, hoarding, or watching too much TV.

having compassion for yourself means finally dealing with all of those pesky yet positive things that we know we need to do for ourselves, but we ignore. things like going to the dentist, tending to your taxes, calling your parents, cleaning your ramshackle closet, apologizing to a friend, or fixing your broken down car.

does your messy desk mimic the state of your mind?

we must mend our shame and weave blankets of forgiveness.

it’s a remedy i prescribed myself over three years ago and the changes i’ve experienced have saved my life. once i began to show love for myself through acts of self-kindness, i began to heal from all of the ugliness i was distracting myself from, and with.

i'm finally tending to the madness that brewed throughout all my years of not being fully self-conscious or aware.

i’ve come a long way since then and i still have a long way to go, but it’s a remarkable journey with incomparable rewards. i'm ever thankful to my beautiful girlfriend for not only pointing this truth out to me, but also in being patient while i embarked along its path.

compassion and loving-kindness can conquer all of our deepest of fears, and once it begins within we can then share it with the rest of the world as well.

brian thompson