One of my fondest memories as a boy was my mother waking me up each morning. With one hand she would squeeze my foot and in the other she held a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I would come to remember her as someone who taught me joy.
Sophie Reich, my mother, was born in Austria and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900’s as a teenager. Later meet my father Louis Feinstein, a Russian immigrant. Together they would raise five children in Brooklyn. I was her youngest child, born when she was 43. My oldest sibling, Murray, was already 20 when I was born. I’m sure I will never be able to fully appreciate what it meant for her to start the journey of motherhood all over again at that age.
Some years ago my wife was completing her doctoral dissertation on compassion and social healing. I learned a lot from her in that process. For example, the word for compassion in Hebrew, “rachamim”, means “womb” — that place where life is nourished and protected in preparation for birth. Birth is a primal act of tremendous pain, power and joy, which speaks to why the womb symbolizes compassion and why mothers are such potent embodiments of compassion. The bond between a mother and her child — whether it’s the mother bear protecting her cub or a refugee mother fleeing harm with her child at her breast — represents the deepest impulse to protect and preserve life. And, while this impulse lives in all of us, mother’s are the custodians for the continuity of life. That’s a pretty awesome assignment
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition meditating on the practice of mothering is used as a way to cultivate compassion for all beings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to the image of a mother breast feeding her baby as the most potent symbol of human love and refers to the importance of the constant protecting and nurturing, physical touch, warmth and care necessary to insure the growth of the human brain and healthy development.
“The key to genuine peace lies in each of us reconnecting with the power of our mother’s love, the affection that nurtured us when we were children. I always tell people that a mother is a true teacher of compassion and human affection…Therefore, I do not consider compassion as unique to religion. It’s the basic human nature that we all share. Mother’s milk is, I think, a symbol of compassion”
Of course, the experience of compassion from our mothers is not a universal one, and my aim is not to over-sentimentalize or generalize. But as Mother’s Day approaches, I am thinking of it now as an opportunity to appreciate both my own mother and also some really fundamental and under appreciated truths about life itself. In what seems like an endless barrage of cruelties and harshness that come to us via all kinds of media, we can loss sight of the tenderness, compassion and caring that millions upon millions of mothers carry and convey to their children day in and day out, so that they can flourish and realize their potential. Life sustaining life. Just contemplating this is balm for a world in need of compassion. My hope is that some day their courage and humanity will be center stage, not just relegated to one day a year!