The front yard of the house where I grew up was shaded by two large trees. In spring they were home to dozens of twittering birds, and of course, the nests of their young. Inevitably some of the newly hatched fell (or were pushed) out of the nests. Every year my brother and I would find their small pink bodies on the driveway, the sidewalk, or in the grass. Once in a while we would discover a baby bird that had survived the fall, wriggling blindly, chirping in fear. We would scoop it up and run to the house, begging our mother to help us save it. On the advice of a local veterinarian, she would procure an eyedropper and some dog food. My brother and I would fashion a makeshift nest from a shoebox, which we'd place under a lamp for warmth.
My heart is not a baby bird, but sometimes it feels like one. And, nowadays, I try to care for it like one.
Self-compassion is a relatively new concept for me. For years I excoriated myself for having depression and anxiety. Why do you have to be so weak? I asked myself. Why can't you be like everyone else? I told myself that I was a burden on the ones I loved. I told myself that I was worthless, a failure as a human being. And the harder I was on myself the more depressed and anxious I became, and the more depressed and anxious I became the harder I was on myself.
It seems sort of obvious, now, that my response to my illness started a vicious cycle. But it took over a decade for me to realize what I was doing, and half a decade to stop doing it. In fact, I'm not even sure I can say that I've stopped--but I'm trying. There are days and weeks when my heart feels naked, vulnerable, and bruised. During those times I try to nurse it like a baby bird.
I'm not calling this a cure and I am definitely not saying this is easy. For some reason (I tend to blame the Puritans), many of us feel that we are unworthy of compassion, though we tend to give it to others. "Treat yourself the way you would treat your best friend," is the first mantra that got to me, and it's one I return to again and again. "Treat yourself the way you would treat an abandoned baby bird" works just as well.
I am not naive. There will always be suffering in the world. The baby birds of my youth, despite our best efforts and my mother's round-the-clock care, never survived. But we never stopped trying to save them. I can't stop myself from experiencing difficult feelings, but I don't have to add anger and self-hatred on top of them. I can hold myself gently. And I've found that when I do, I recover more quickly than ever before, with less scars.
Besides, my heart is not a baby bird. It beats, it bounces back, it lives.