Monday, January 21, 2008

The Meaning of Love: Acceptance, Empathy, and Compassion

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sean Penn plays Matthew Poncelet, a white supremacist who's been sentenced to death. Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who petitions the court on his behalf. Though she initially believes that Poncelet is innocent, by the end she recognizes that he's guilty of murder. And yet, she continues to love him completely. He's a murderer, and she loves him. How can this be?

Something changed in me when I saw Dead Man Walking. I saw that it's possible to love another person even if you don't like the terrible things they do. Before I saw the movie I thought you earned love. Afterwards, I realized that love is a birthright.

It took becoming a therapist for me to apply this. I learned to accept my patients completely as they are. I learned to try to see the world through their eyes. And I learned to have compassion for their suffering and pain. In other words, I learned to love them as fellow humans doing the best they can with the resources they have.

This doesn't mean that I don't worry about their actions. I often feel concerned about the choices they make, the harm they sometimes do both to others and to themselves. Undereating, overeating, purging, abusing drugs, obsessing, checking compulsively, driving recklessly, and being promiscuous. But these destructive actions don't make me dislike them. They demonstrate how much my patients are suffering and the lengths to which they'll go in order to survive.

When I think about why I love my patients this way, I realize it's because this is how my therapist loved me. She accepted me, she empathized with me, and she radiated compassion. No matter what I did to keep things together.

My experience in therapy taught me how to love. To love my patients. To love my students. To love my family. To love my friends. It even layed the groundwork for me to love myself. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to everyone. A task that it certainly easier said than done.

As with Sister Prejean, it doesn't mean we deny the truth. Nor does it mean we don't condemn, convict, and punish. But it does mean that we separate the doer from the deed and remember that we all deserve to be loved. No matter how terrible the crimes we commit. No matter what we're willing to do to survive.