Poetic traditions of compassion can be thought of as a form of creative maladjustment that refuses to embrace violence, apathy, or blind obedience to dictatorial authority as acceptable norms.
Demonstrations of such poemized compassion are often even more evident in the actual lives of poets than in their celebrated works. With tsunami-like waves of political dissent fueling domestic and international upheavals across the globe, it is a point worth considering during National Poetry Month.
This four-part series focuses in particular on compassion and creative maladjustment as interpreted through the lives and works of three influential poets: Jalal al-Din Rumi, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rainer Maria Rilke. It will also look at how their practices in many ways reflect those presented by author Karen Armstrong in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.
Components of Compassion
Consider that members of various "demographic groups" in different nations have begun to assert claims to political power at the same that unavoidable historical population shifts are already in progress. Nearly everyone recognizes the need for greater social harmony as these shifts progress, yet many insist on touting reactionary measures steeped in xenophobia, military coercion, and denial of documented research as the best hopes for achieving stability. The truth is we have seen repeatedly that these do not foster unity at all. If anything, they increase the agonies that come with violent division.
The path of compassion may very well be humanity's most reliable strategy because while often rejected by those in high political offices, it has in fact been a central component of the teachings and practices which have sustained humankind thus far. Unlike calls to force separations, conquer, or manipulate, it is more likely to help lead opposing parties to necessary compromises and to shared--although often obscured by fear and rage--goals and values.
The powerful strategy Armstrong outlines in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, to become a more proficient practitioner of compassion, happen to include elements and qualities prized by many exceptional poets. Presented here in condensed or paraphrased form, they are as follows: 1) an expanded understanding of compassion; 2) examination of your individual world; 3) compassion for yourself; 4) empathy; 5) mindfulness; 6) taking corrective action; 7) realization of limitations of personal knowledge; 8) communicating with rather than talking at each other; 9) cultivation of concern for all humanity; 10) developing knowledge of diverse cultures; 11) recognizing shared traits and values; and 12) extending agape love toward those categorized as enemies.
Applying Wisdom of the Past to Challenges of Today
The concept of creative maladjustment is not very far from that of civil disobedience. Both encourage would-be-mindful individuals to confront destructive social conditions with constructive approaches to reconciliation. Both generate possibilities in the face of apparent impossibilities.
In his speech at Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-1968) invoked the term to suggest an important element in the movement toward desperately-needed progressive change and courageous resistance to demagoguery:
"I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence..."
As it was employed in the 1960s, and as it is by many in these early years of the twenty-first century, creative maladjustment represents a call to action and extends a tradition which, according to Dr. King, was observed by such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Jesus of Nazareth. It also had a profound impact on the life and legacy of one Jalal al-Din Rumi.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love
National Poetry Month 2017