Compassion: What it is; what it isn’t.
First, a disclaimer. The intention of this piece is to offer a few insights about compassion in everyday life and to spark a more comprehensive conversation, which I look forward to having with you.
Let’s begin with the idea that feeling sorry for someone is not a way to be compassionate; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. If, for example, you feel sorry for me because my partner died, of cancer, in his mid-30’s, because you judge such deaths to be “wrong” and/or “unfair” and/or “tragic,” etc., your relationships to “wrong” and “unfair” and “tragic” actually separate you from me. They prevent you from seeing that I, myself, have not called his passing any of those things. They prevent you from appreciating that I happen to be learning and growing through this experience in truly amazing ways that I’d very much like to share with you, but you cannot hear any of it because you are wrapped up in feeling sorry for me based on how you might feel yourself. So I am pretty much lost in the equation and not feeling at all seen or heard and definitely not like I’m receiving compassion. Ironic, isn’t it? So compassion is listening. Really listening.
And you can see from this real-life personal example that a conversation about being compassionate cannot occur without a conversation about the necessity of suspending judgment in order to offer compassion. Judgment and compassion cannot co-exist, which means you cannot walk with your friend past someone who appears to be living on the street, someone you are calling, in your conversation, a menace to society and disgusting and smelly and offensive (judgments) and then say you have compassion for him. (Well you can say it, but it doesn’t make it true.) If you say you are acting on your compassion by writing a check to an agency that cares for people who don’t have homes of their own, I would offer that that doesn’t quite add up to compassion. It’s charity. True compassion would look more like willingly overriding your olfactory system and maybe even some fear and sitting next to the person and engaging him in conversation, learning to appreciate something about who he is. It might allow you to learn from him how much he enjoys his life and how secure he feels smelling the way he does or even how ashamed he is about his odor and how unsure he is about what to do about it. In reality, you have no idea and being compassionate means finding out. True compassion might also mean simply smiling at him as you walk by and offering a blessing to him as a brother, your equal, for that’s exactly what he is.
Compassion is also a willingness to allow those we love and care the most about to have their life experiences — even when we see their trains about to wreck. Yikes! When we think we have better ideas for others than they have for themselves, our “good intentions” cover up an arrogance that isn’t very pretty. For when we offer up unsolicited heavy-handed ideas, suggestions, and admonitions, we are overriding the simple fact that they, like we, are spiritual beings having human experiences. They, like we, are here on purpose for a purpose and to interfere with their journey is to forget that they are in a process with their/our Creator, a process that has nothing to do with us. It’s true when they’re sick, it’s true when they set out on empty-walleted backpacking adventures around the world, it’s true when they enter into a relationship with someone you cannot abide and, yes, it’s true when they are dying, to name but a few examples.
How about gossip?! One hundred percent judgment, zero percent compassion. Just had to throw that one in for good measure. You’re welcome.
Many of us today are endeavoring to be more compassionate with others in our daily lives and we are making great strides. Yet more often than not, we fail to include ourselves in our intentions to be more compassionate. All day long we think thoughts and utter statements like “I am such an idiot” and “I can’t believe I did that — what a loser I am” and “I’m not smart enough” and “this caramel fudge rocky road marshmallow brownie sundae with whipped cream, hot fudge, and wet walnuts I’m about to snarf down is proof that I am a pig.” If you would like to see and live in a more compassionate world, cultivate compassion within your own being, expand your capacity to love your Self without judgment. Then it will be easy to be with others in truly compassionate ways.
Compassion begets compassion.