I know a lot of people think compassion is overrated and outdated; that compassionate people are pushovers, likely to be religious and most certainly insane to a certain degree. Compassion, it is often thought, can’t be sustained in this world of competition, egoism, and where the ends can justify any means. It goes against the way society works, and arguably also against our natural human tendencies to strive for survival over and above everything else. It is then concluded that if you want to get ahead in life, it’s competition over compassion, assertion over passivity, me over you.
Yet again and again compassion is the tried and tested method of success for me, whether it be in my professional or personal life. This is because underlying all human existence is our connection with other people. And the secret to connecting with those around us requires three things:
- An understanding of “me”: self-awareness of how my mood, my behaviour and my personality affects the people who interact with me, and consequently upon myself;
- An empathy for “you”: the ability for me to see things from your perspective (putting aside whether I agree or disagree with that view), to understand your motivations and attitudes that is non-judgemental or clouded by my own prejudices of you, and to genuinely care about your wellbeing and;
- A respect for “us”: creating a connection to close the gap that separates us emotionally and psychologically.
Unfortunately, too often we are missing at least one of the above in our relationship with others, therefore creating a rift between ourselves and the other. As a consequence, we have unnecessary ills such as miscommunication, competition, alienation, disrespect, vindictiveness, power struggles and selfishness. It gives rise to negative and unproductive emotions, such as anger, jealousy, blase indifference, fear and other forms of negativity.
Yet if we truly understood what compassion is, we can see how important it is in building the rift between people. Compassion requires an ability to recognise and then empathise with someone else’s misfortune, and from there develop a genuine wish for that person to be free from that misfortune. Following from that, we should then act upon our compassion to do what we can to free that person from their suffering.
It is easier to practice compassion on those we like, and on those who are vulnerable.
It is harder to develop compassion for those we dislike, and for those who we believe has created their own suffering for themselves.
A good example of the former is young children. The suffering they bear is usually not because of something they have done intentionally and willfully. They get sick on their own accord; they get abused and have no ability to defend themselves; they get upset because they cannot understand the complex adult world they find themselves in.
An example of the latter is criminals. It is easy for us to see their crimes as the only attribute of criminals that we can understand and hence judge them on. It is so easy for us to forget that they are more than just someone who has committed a crime, that they are also a son to a mother, possibly a mother to a child.
To illustrate, I will steal one of Ajahn Brahm’s ideas. Have a read of the following poem, and guess who wrote it:
AN APPEAL FOR PATIENCE AND KINDNESS TOWARD ONE’S AGING MOTHER
When your mother has grown older,
And you have grown older,
When what was once easy and effortless
Now becomes a burden,
When her dear, faithful eyes
No longer see life as they once did,
When her feet, grown tired,
No longer want to carry her as she walks —
Then give her your arm for support;
Accompany her with gladness and joy.
The hour will come when, weeping
You will accompany her on her final walk.
And if she asks for something, then answer her.
And if she asks again, then speak.
And if she asks yet again, respond to her,
Not stormily, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you well,
Explain everything to her joyfully.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth will ask for nothing more.
So, who wrote this poem:
(a) William Blake (famous English poet)
(b) Ivan Milat (serial killer in Australia)
(c) Adolf Hitler (more than a serial killer!)
(d) Paul Lynch (current Minister for Aging)
If you guessed (a), you are wrong.
The correct answer is (c). Yup, although we often associate Hitler with the Holocaust (which killed between 11 – 14 million people) and WWII (the deadliest conflict in human history with over 70 million casualties), Hitler is less known for being a mummy’s boy. In fact, we may be more illing to accept him as a murderer, than to accept that he had a tender side and that what he did was in his eyes for the good of the Aryan people. I’m certainly not condoning what he did, but it is interesting how concrete our perceptions of people can be.
To come back to what I was saying earlier about developing compassion for those we dislike, let’s analyse why this may be so. At the core of our blockage is the space we have created between ourselves and the other person. I emphasise that the space is created by us, so don’t bother blaming the other person. Sure they may have done something to make you react this way, but it certainly is you who is maintaining this rift. This rift may then be filled with anger, hatred, jealousy, indifference, frustration, or other negative emotions in reaction to the other person. As a consequence, you have come to disregard the other person as a person, you have dehumanised them by seeing them as merely an embodiment of trouble, an obstacle to your peace and advancement, or an unimportant puzzled to be overlooked. You may also feel this way because you feel this is the only way to deal with them, or because it empowers you when you withhold your compassion for them. It may also be because you feel it is easier to understand the world in a black and white way, and changing your views about this person is simply too difficult (e.g., Hitler is bad FULL STOP. Don’t complicate things by telling me he’s a nice guy as well as being a bad guy).
Yet what I find again and again is that there is always a reason to be compassionate for someone who is suffering. If a person is being derogatory towards you, it is because they lack the self-confidence and fear to see you as their equal. If a person is being selfish, it is because they lack real contentment in their own lives and require the external world to provide them with comfort. If they are duplicitous, it is only because they are not comfortable with the person that they are. If they are stubborn, then they will never learn nor progress. If they don’t want to connect with you, then they are only left with loneliness. If they are rude and aggressive, it is only because they do not know tenderness and love. If they are arrogant and obnoxious, it is only because they have not been touched by the wonders of the world to be moved to true humility. If they are angry, jealous and full of hate, then they are burning in the fires they embody.
Seeing this, what other reaction can you have but to be moved with sympathy to extend your compassion to them? In doing so, any negativity you hold would naturally dissipate, as you realise that no amount of negativity you give to them would be worse than what they give to themselves. In releasing your own negativity towards them, you free yourself from the bonds of suffering too. In time, your empathy would close the rift between you both, even if it takes years, and even if that rift will always be visible. At least when the rift is close enough, you can reach over to give him or her a hug.
Compassion isn’t only for hippies and the religious. It is not something we should talk about but never do: it is the language of the modern world. In a world that emphasises so much on communication, sociable networking and our ability to work with different people from different walks of life, one would think that anything that would bring people together in a real and solid way would be embraced by society. There is no time in history when compassion is needed as much as now, and ironically, it is now that compassion is the most misunderstood. In essence, compassion isn’t going against the workings of the world; it is the way of the world.
18 May 2010