When I was six years old someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” At that age, living in a small Georgia town in the 1950s, I could only think of four careers for women—they were the only stories I knew: teacher, nurse, secretary, and housewife. By some process of elimination, I picked nurse. From that moment on, I began to get little nurse kits for my birthdays. The librarian at school set aside the biography of Florence Nightingale for me. If someone cut their finger, I was called in as the designated bandager. At sixteen, my parents arranged for me to be a volunteer at the local hospital. Everyone expected me to be a nurse, and I was like wet cement taking on the expectations.

I got my Bachelor’s degree in nursing and worked nine years—even taught nursing in a college—before I stopped and said to myself, “This is not who I am. I am not really a nurse inside. I’m a writer.” By that time, the cement had hardened and I had some jackhammer work to do, breaking up the old identity imbedded within and releasing a new self. I had continued with nursing, not because it is a noble profession that stirred my deep gladness, but because I did not want to risk upsetting others’—not to mention my own—ingrained notion of who I was. I wanted to please. I wanted to protect myself from the uncertainty of starting over. In such ways our consciousness becomes centered in the outer roles and masks we wear, rather than in the True Self within.

I have had to struggle to pull myself from the Collective They. At various times I have lived out of narrowly prescribed identities that I accepted and internalized from the Collective: dutiful and submissive wife, ever-sacrificing mother, armored career woman, perfectionist, pleaser, performer, good little girl who never colored outside the lines drawn for her. Sometimes I was so busy being tuned in to outside ideas, expectations, and demands, I failed to hear the unique music in my soul. I forfeited my ability to listen creatively to my deepest self, to my own God within. I was wearing the name “They.” 

When I wear this name I am limited in my ability to relate to others in a genuinely compassionate way. I am separated from them by the masks that keep me from being real with them. Stuck in the Collective They, I am more apt to relate out of my ego needs, from the subtleties of my false selves and from mandates and demands placed on me from others, rather than love born in my own heart.


One day driving down the street, I asked myself, “Sue Monk Kidd, who are you?” Right away the obvious answers came. “You are Bob and Ann’s mother, Sandy’s wife, Leah and Ridley’s daughter, a writer, a member of Grace Episcopal Church.” All nice things. Then I asked myself. “So, if all those roles were stripped away, then who would you be?” The question jolted me. It brought me to stand before the bare mystery of my own being. Was there something deeper at the very core of me that was purely and truly my “I”?


I came to believe that my true identity goes beyond the outer roles I play. It transcends the ego. I came to understand that there is an Authentic “I” within—an “I Am,” or divine spark within the soul.


Here is where our real selfhood is rooted, in the divine spark or seed, in the image of God imprinted on the human soul. The True Self is not our creation, but God’s. It is the self we are in our depths. It is our capacity for divinity and transcendence.


Unraveling external selves and coming home to our real identity is the true meaning of soul work. I remember a time in my life when I actually thought the term “soul work” referred to the evangelistic effort of winning souls. That hints at how little attention I had paid to the soul as the seedbed of the divine life. I eventually found that the soul is more than an immortal commodity to win and save. It is the repository of the inner divine, the truest part of us.

A few years ago, struggling with false selves, wearing masks as if life were a masquerade party, I began to feel the suffocation that happens when we cut ourselves off from the True Self. I went away to a retreat center nestled among live oaks in the low country of South Carolina. I went to try and remember who I really was. I walked in the front door, and there tacked on the wall was a picture of the pregnant Madonna and these words:


This image represents each person who is trying to birth the Real Self, the Imago Dei that is taking shape within. For that conception to move to its fullness, we all need time to be quiet, to be reflective, to be centered in our deep places.


During that retreat, I walked beneath the trees alone with God, alone with my True Self, praying wordless prayers, touching the space of mystery, going to my center. That time produced the energy needed to shift my awareness to an Authentic I, which is the necessary prelude for real compassion.

Living out the Compassionate We means blending our tears with the world’s in a way that heals and creates community. The word compassion literally means com (with) passion (suffering). Compassion is not, therefore, having a sentimental feeling of pity; it is sharing the pain. It means a “suffering with” that flows from the life of God in the soul, not from ego motivations.


When compassion wakes up in us, we find ourselves more willing to become vulnerable, to take the risk of entering the pain of others. We open our lives to them in a genuine willingness to be known. We tell them our own story of suffering as a way of offering healing and hope. We feel their heart bleeding into ours; we catch their tears. We relieve their pain as much as we are able, and by relieving theirs, we relieve God’s.


While reading Elie Weisel’s book, Night, which is the chronicle of his suffering in a Nazi concentration camp, I came upon a story that spread before me a metaphoric picture of what it means to live in the Compassionate We as a community.


Nazi soldiers herded the Jews out of their barracks before dawn into thickly falling snow in order to wait for a train that would transport them to another camp.

Having been without food and drink for three days, the Jews stood in the snow till evening, forbidden to sit or even bend over. The snow formed a layer on their shoulders. One thirsty man took out his spoon and began to eat the snow that had accumulated on the shoulders of the person in front of him. The act spread through the line until that collection of separate individuals, each of whom had been struggling alone with their pain, became a community sharing their suffering together.


The image burned into my mind, and I knew that in some way this is how we would survive as a human family, by becoming a place of nourishment for our brothers and sisters, by quietly shouldering their pain and their healing. We would survive as we became a We Community, sharing our sufferings in a great and holy act of compassion.

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