Listening to Krista Tippett on the topic of compassion reminded me of the walk I took yesterday with my friend Audrey. She had been talking about this tree that she saw in a park nearby both of our houses, so we took a journey to the pond along where the tree was growing and the lessons I learned were both heartbreaking and lasting.

Compassion, Tippett says, grows out of curiosity. The word is not as weak and puny as our society has twisted it to be, equating it with pity in so many cases. It is borne out of a curiosity and a belief in beauty, an understanding that what you see in the other person whom you are compassionate towards is a potential product of beauty. Kindness, she says, is a byproduct of this sense of beauty, resulting in the actions of hospitality, of charity, and of simply showing up.

This brings me back to the tree, which in reality were about a dozen trees whose trunks had each engulfed a portion of the barbed-wire fence along which they grew. Some trees were larger, and significant portions of the fence had become literally surrounded by the tree. Other trees had smaller trunks and were partially covering the portion of the fence. Some trees had just encountered the fence and their trunks were becoming mangled as they began to encounter and grow around the rusty metal. Each had a visible entry spot and a scar to show for the entry of the fence.

The image was so powerful. Audrey mentioned before we went to the park that she was unable to get the image out of her head and struggled to put words to what it evoked.  For her it was a powerful personal recognition that we must individually  come to terms with our hurts and our past, and “grow around” our barbed-wire fences, instead of mangling ourselves in an attempt to remove the barbs from our hearts and lives.

My reaction was less of a personal reflection about my own barbed past but a sense of pride in the trees for their determination and acceptance of the pain that they surely endured in this growing process. I found myself incredibly moved by their power, and found their wounds to be so powerfully beautiful. As I observed the young  trees who had just encountered the painful metal, I felt like cheering them on, standing beside them as the months passed and they became more entangled in this fence.

As I moved away from the trees, I began to think more about the fence that literally united these separate organisms into a single unit. It was as if they had united in the struggle against the tree. I wondered about their conversations with one another. Perhaps, though, the silent unison was all the conversation that they needed.

It reminded me to consider my own expression of compassion, about the ways I approach others whose struggle is in process against the barbs of their lives. A recent conversation with my friend Lindsey, who has just begun volunteering with the Sexual Assault Center in the town where I attended college, reminded me of the experience of sitting in a room with someone who had just experience the most heinous of crimes against a person- a physical violation of such magnitude that I become nauseated each time I think of it. Lindsey and I talked about how difficult it is to sit in that room and feel like you are doing anything. You have been confronted with not only that person’s experience and their new identity as a “victim” or a “survivor” (an empowering term that advocates embrace) and you feel inadequate to do anything. Along with that experience of inadequacy, you are confronted with the knowledge that this thing happens every day, and you become enraged and entangled in a war that you feel the responsibility to fight. It’s an incredibly overwhelming set of emotions.

As Tippett says, compassion and kindness often manifest themselves in an ability and a willingness to just BE with those people. In recognizing that they have value and personal worth, you place yourself along the fence, face the same direction, and walk with them as they encounter the barbs. You do this because you recognize that you’ve overcome (or are still overcoming) your own barbs, and you do so with the help of others who were willing to be there with you. You do not attempt to remove the barbs or analyze the barbs or heal the puncture wound. You just walk along with the others, knowing that this fence will become a part of them.

We’re all walking around with some amount of rusty wire sticking straight through our guts. I wear mine proudly and I ache to encounter people with overwhelming amounts of compassion. I hope desperately that my reaction to my own compassion is adequate.