Creating Painful Space Inside Ourselves: Thoughts on Wombs and Compassion

This piece was originally published on the Tokens Show Blog on Sept 17, 2015. 

I am not a mother. This must be clear as I begin writing thoughts that involve wombs: I don’t have one and never will.

I never spent much time thinking about wombs. I suppose the word has most often conjured up images associated with the birth story of Jesus: stars, horses, mangers, my mind-portrait of Mary, a bearded Joseph, etc. I like this birth story, so I don’t mind the association.

I also think of my father, a family practice physician of twenty-five years who specializes in obstetrics. By the time we moved away from the small town of Jellico where I grew up, my dad had delivered over 1,000 babies. The town itself had less than 3,000 people. My dad’s vocation and his livelihood—and thereupon the family’s—have been intimately connected to wombs. Even so, I have never given them much thought.

A few weeks ago in Palestine, however, I heard a Jewish Israeli man mention wombs. He explained that in Hebrew and Arabic, the etymological roots of the words compassion and womb are the same. A womb is a place inside a woman where another human grows and takes shape. The womb is the mother’s way of making space inside herself for her child. Just so, the man offered, compassion is creating space inside ourselves for another—for another’s stories, identities, and feelings.

Again, I am not a mother, but like all of us, I’ve spoken with mothers, and any mother will say that wombs, while so often loving spaces of nurture and joy, are also spaces of pain. In an interview by Krista Tippett, Walter Brueggemann speaks of the womb as “the capacity of a mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and reality and identity of the child.” This whole process, he acknowledges, is a “terrible inconvenience”—whereupon Krista delightfully informs that she would know better than him about such things—for it is painful and cumbersome.

As I have traveled through Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland over the last six weeks, interviewing dozens of people on their experiences of conflict and peace, I am struck by the aptness of the above understandings of compassion. In the experience of compassion, we shorten the distance between ourselves and the recipients of our compassion by creating inside ourselves a new space where we can hold their pain and stories alongside our own.


Jo Berry

In 1984, Jo Berry’s father—a minor British MP—was killed in the Grand Hotel in Brighton by an IRA bomb. Fifteen years later, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the bomber—Patrick Magee—walked free from prison. Jo had spent this time preparing herself for an encounter with him, through conferences, therapy, and finding safe spaces to share and receive stories of pain and grief. On a December night in 2000, Jo and Patrick sat together in a room for the first time. During those first three hours, they talked alone. “I didn’t want to blame him,” she told me when I interviewed her last weekend. “I wanted him to open up. I needed to hear his story.” Initially, though, all she heard was “political justification,” why bombing the hotel was good strategy at the time. Uninterested in listening to someone justify her father’s murder, she planned to end the meeting. But then, Pat said something different. “I don’t know what to say anymore. I don’t know who I am. Can I hear your rage? What can I do to help you?” The conversation changed, and Jo knew this wouldn’t be their only meeting.

Today, they have built a friendship; not one floating in naïve, romantic euphoria, but one grounded in the womb-like pain of compassion. From just a few days after her father’s murder, Jo knew she needed to make something positive of such tragedy, and she set out to understand those responsible for his death. As she opened herself up to hearing stories in Belfast, she began to understand why someone might join the IRA. The space inside her for the other was widening.

In a similar way, Pat found, in that initial conversation with Jo, a desire to open himself up to her pain and story as well. According to Jo, Pat later told her that if it were not for the empathy and compassion she showed during their visit, he would have remained closed and guarded. Her compassion begot compassion, or at least the desire to become compassionate. Perhaps as we make room inside ourselves for the stories of others, they begin to realize they may have the same capacity themselves.

Again, however, this is not a rosy, ungrounded notion wherein enemies, through compassion, frolic into the sunset. Like the womb-process, the compassion-process hurts. When partners, for instance, make room for each other in their homes, items often get moved around, displaced or discarded. Things that once were priority get bumped down the list; things that once seemed essential may need to be tossed. Making room for the beloved becomes the new priority, the new essential. In other words, the blessing of making space for the other must also include sacrifice, and therefore pain.

This is just as true, perhaps more so, in the emotional and relational capacities of compassion between enemies. To feel compassion for another is to find resonance in the other’s experience, to put oneself to the other’s shoes, to situate oneself inside the other’s narrative. Especially, then, in areas and times of conflict, this experience is profoundly painful as it means stepping down from the assumed moral high ground to accept, or at least consider, that one’s narrative may not be the only narrative, that there may be multiple truths. Compassion requires sacrificing those parts of one’s identity formed in opposition to the other, releasing claims of righteousness, superiority, and victimhood. Compassion means admitting, perhaps for the first time, that the other is fully human, and perhaps not all that different from us.

*       *       *

Jo told me that as her relationship with Patrick developed, he one day told her that her father sounded like a wonderful man, the type of man Patrick would love to drink tea with. Compassion made space even for the man Patrick killed, and between Jo and Patrick, this space gave birth to friendship.


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