On Compassion


Soon, the Jewish new year begins, and I would like to welcome it with a few words on compassion. I recently had reason to look up the exact definition in the dictionary.

com·pas·sion   /kəmˈpaSHən/

Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others: “the victims should be treated with compassion”.

Synonyms: pity – mercy – sympathy – commiseration – ruth – clemency”

Even the dictionary can’t agree on what compassion means.The synonyms aren’t actually synonyms.  Pity is useless and often destructive. Mercy is better, but implies fault with the miserable (though it has the notion of action or help that ‘pity’ fails to show.) Commiseration is a different thing entirely, ruth is an archaic word that comes the closest to modern usage of compassion, and clemency, in this day and age, is something the President grants.

Compassion has always been a very important word to me. I remember being in my senior-kindergarten classroom, age 4 or 5, and thinking about the fact that ‘com’ meant ‘with’, like community, and passion was strong emotion, so that compassion must have been community feeling. That was when I learned the word, and I went on with that definition for a very long time. I think the 5 year old me had more wisdom than most of the later versions, in a lot of ways.

I unlearned that definition for many years.

My mother was an uncommonly black-and-white person in her way of thinking. People were either good or bad. You were either wrong or right, and she was always right. This us-and-them mentality was very hard to live with, because it also taught me that people couldn’t make mistakes, or be very different from my mother and I, and still be good people.

The thing is, she said all the right things.

My mother taught me that racism was bad, that all people were equal in the eyes of god, that people could be different and be good, but I didn’t actually see it in practice very much. I remember my mother using the word ‘slut’ for one of my eight or nine year old third-grade classmates because she was wearing a short frilly skirt in the summer heat, and I remember her disgust when she talked about unmarried sexuality, about homosexuality, about people of religions other than her Judeo-Christian norm. She was always sure to tell me that she knew _I_ would never do a thing like (insert whatever sin, real or imagined) …

And generally I didn’t, because I wanted to be loved. I believed I needed to be a certain way for this to happen. I knew I was missing something, and it hurt. There was definitely a hole in me, but it wasn’t religion as so many of my very Christian teachers and friend’s parents said. It was subtlety, and tolerance for uncertainty. It was also love. (Horses had long taught me how to love, and what it was…but that’s another story. )

I wasn’t taught subtlety of people or what real compassion was until I left her home in my mid teens. It made me very unhappy and very afraid. I was constantly torn between ideas: I could observe and know with my own mind that a person was good, and it made me feel good to be around them, but if I knew they had done something bad, that meant they must be a bad person, and I shouldn’t like them.  It made it very hard to get close to people. I didn’t know how to forgive people, or how to be hurt, or how to pick myself up from being hurt, or how to recognise when people were lashing out because THEY were hurting. There were very important life-skills that I was simply lacking.

It got better. I was in my late teens before I was okay with the fact that every long-term relationship of any kind that I will ever have will include pain and betrayals, and that that’s alright.  I knew I needed to learn how to be happy, that it was a skill like any other, and that I would get there in time. So I worked at it. I got my heart broken. I learned to smile again, without worrying about what other people thought. I rekindled the light in my eyes. Somewhere along the way came a feeling of peace I had only ever known before when working with my horses, and now I recognise it as love, simple and freely given. So I worked on doing that more often.

It was, in retrospect, painful to unlearn to be afraid of other people. It was also very easy in the way that something is if it feels right and it is what you want.

As I got out into the world, I noticed that the deeply happy people I saw had significant things in common; they loved deeply, and they were at the same time, joyful and sad. They had a tolerance for uncertainty and for grey areas. Some have been men of religion, Zen personalities,  but most were not. But they all kept an open heart and moved forward into the world doing the only thing that is always the right choice; acting with love. They also all shared a wonderment I feel myself, a fascination with the beauty and fragileness that is the human creature.

I am not a religious woman, but in a way I think I must be, because I find the need to use the vernacular of holy things when I talk about the meaning of my life and the overpowering beauty of living. I am indeed driven to my proverbial knees… or more often to dancing, to singing and writing and poetry and loving with abandon, in worship and honor of something greater than myself. Yet, the only place I find myself willing to stand and defend the existence of anything like god is in regards to the god in other people. There is something in the human being that is sacrosanct to me, and that spark or whatever you want to call it is why I live and why my life matters.

To that end, I sat down to write today with the goal of giving shape to the idea of compassion.

Compassion is not pity. To think that the suffering deserve pity devalues their agency to better their lives or alleviate their suffering. It also absolves the pitier of the need to act on behalf of the suffering. Pity is a selfish emotion, because it comes with many benefits to the pitier (soothing guilt, ameliorating an ignored sense of duty, and tricking the pitier into thinking they’ve done something useful.) It comes with few benefits for the pitied, and since they’re suffering, that is an unequal, unkind, and selfish emotion.

Compassion is not giving-in. If a suffering person wants you to do something that harms you emotionally or practically, it is not compassionate to give in, because compassion is multidirectional. It is not compassionate to give in to someones desires (run an errand for them, help them move, take time off work) if this causes you to be angry or resentful, and negatively impacts your life. If you can truly let go of your anger because you believe the favor or life choice is right, that is compassion because it is founded in something you believe in. Giving-in is commonly mistaken for compassion, because it temporarily soothes the sufferer’s immediate pain. But it solves no problems.

Compassion is not acting out of fear. It is not taking in an effectively homeless teenager because you’re afraid of what people will think if you don’t (as once happened to me, I think.) It isn’t doing it so people will think well of you. (Another possibility.) It is truly RECOGNISING that the frightened creature on your proverbial doorstep is a HUMAN BEING, with a full real inner world just as vast and colorful as your own. It is honoring that human being, regardless of extrinsic circumstances.

Compassion is, most simply, love.

When I was sixteen, my life with my mother had become intolerable. My wellbeing was deeply threatened, and so I left. I stayed with a friend’s mother, who, for all her best intentions, only made things worse.

After that,  another  woman took me in, and she taught me how to love instead of fear, through fear, to truly act with compassion for myself and for those around me. It has been the single greatest deciding factor in whether my life has been a success or not.

Sometimes I think that’s really the only real choice we have in life in regards to other people… we can choose love, or not. We can choose to be compassionate, or not. Even when our world is crumbling around us, or perhaps more significantly, when it is good and we have every reason to be selfish.

I remember vividly what it was like to believe that good and bad was black and white, and it helps me understand how humans came up with the idea of hell.

For my own sanity, finding a practical understanding of compassion (and the tolerance for uncertainty required for it) is vital.

It doesn’t make me stronger, but to borrow a Buddhist saying, it lets me flow like water. It lets me find my place in the world. It lets me change (and that is, indeed, the only constant) without fear of breaking more than I can mend. It makes this world tolerable for me, and hopefully, makes my presence in this world more good than harm. And there in love, there in the most mundane daily goings on of life become little prayers. And every day, the people I meet, both strange and familiar, answer them.

Shana Tova. May it bring you, of all things, love.

“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,

“You owe me.”

Look what happens with love like that.

It lights up the sky.”

― Rumi