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by Tam Martin Fowles
The Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” but I feel it to be much more than this. Karen Armstrong suggests “Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn't mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what's motivating the other, learning about their grievances”.
I agree with this, of course, and I believe it also means learning about oneself. For me, compassion encompasses a collection of ingredients, which I have stumbled across on my journey through life. I will identify them (in large, bold type above the relevant paragraph) as I explore the subject in the following, somewhat shorter, journey through words.
Experience and Kindness
Compassion is something many of us grow into through our own experience. It is easy to view others from a position of self-righteous judgement if we believe ourselves to be without fault. Such judgement is the antithesis of compassion, and often it is only after experiencing our own “fall from grace” that we learn to look kindly upon others when they fall.
Patience and Tolerance
I remember my mother telling me about the day she was informed that my father, aged 38 and ravaged with cancer, was going to die. After receiving this devastating news, she had to drive the 25 miles home from the hospital to her three waiting children. At one point, unable to focus on driving, she pulled out in front of another car at a junction. The driver blared his horn and swore at her, making an obscene gesture, and she pulled in to the side of the road and cried desperate tears, afraid of attempting the rest of the journey (and the rest of her life!) in such a broken state. She cited this story as an example of why we should try to be patient and tolerant of apparently irrational behaviour. “You never know” she said “what the other person might be going through”.
Humility, Honesty and Self-Awareness
Often, if we try, we may be able to relate to the other person’s point of view. It is an excellent practice, when we judge another harshly, and ask ourselves “where is that negative quality in me?
When I find someone has lied to me, I may be hurt or angry. But if I honestly look within for an example of my own deceit, I will always find one. It may not be as overt as my companion’s. Perhaps I didn’t lie outright, but deliberately withheld the truth, or pretended to agree in order to please someone instead of speaking my truth and risking their displeasure. We are all human, and we all possess the shortcomings that accompany the human condition. When we accept our own fallibility we can have compassion for the fallibility of others. I find it truly liberating to remember, when I am sitting on my high horse in judgement of another, that I am just as fallible. A high horse is not a comfortable place to stay for long. We hold ourselves in tension, and away from the other people on the ground below us.
Forgiveness and Empathy
When we recognise our own shortcomings, we can more easily forgive the shortcomings of others, and empathise with their human frailty; “that person is a human being just like me. I can relate to her behaviour, because I have walked a similar path.”
But what if we have not walked that path? What if we cannot relate to the behaviour? If we have never experienced the agony of addiction, how can we empathise with the addict who mugs and steals to get his fix? The wealthy wife who takes a string of lovers and destroys her family? The successful student who secretly slashes her arms, or makes himself vomit after every meal?
Acceptance and Trust
Acceptance does not mean we think it’s OK to harm another, or oneself. But it is important to accept that others are not the same as us, and are not “less” because of it. We do not need to understand their actions, we need only trust that there are motivations at work that are beyond our understanding, but not beyond compassion. Some of the most remarkable people I have ever known have been recovering addicts. Their addiction has been the springboard for a later life filled with wisdom and spiritual riches far greater than they could have achieved without their earlier suffering.
No-one who is a balanced, happy person at their core deliberately harms another. When I was skilfully robbed by a woman begging outside a national monument earlier this year, after I’d made a special effort to be kind and friendly, I felt self-righteously indignant for a few moments, but then compassion welled in me for her, because I have been dishonest and deceitful in the past, always at times of personal desperation, and recall the deep and crippling misery that accompanied such behaviour for me. By feeling compassion for her, I also felt compassion, by default, for the person I was then, and the person I still am when I behave in ways I would rather not, due to personal circumstances, tiredness, defensiveness or lack.
Self-compassion is essential before we can feel lasting compassion for anyone else. Sometimes we have a tendency to beat ourselves up, and let others off the hook for things we would not tolerate in ourselves. If we look closely at this tendency, we will see its flaws. Do we feel others are less accountable than we? Why do we feel we should be “better” than others? Could this be a little patronising towards them; a little arrogant of us? Why must we be so harsh towards ourselves? Where is the equality in this?
Of course, we live in a world of massive inequality. It is common for people in the US and UK to profess pride in their nationality; to turn away from those of other nations who are “not like us”, and see them as somehow inferior, even deserving of their hardships, and definitely “not our responsibility”.
But we are all human beings with hearts and limbs and brains, with senses and emotions, who love and laugh and cry and dream, who happen to have been born in the part of the world where we happen to have been born. Does my accident of birth into UK citizenship entitle me to a better life than someone accidentally born into African or Eastern European citizenship? Is that person not my sister or brother because s/he lives thousands of miles away and has a different culture and language and skin colour and standard of living?
Gratitude and Generosity
Recognising that “there but for the grace of God (or destiny, if you prefer) go I” engenders compassion, and gratitude. I am not starving. I do not live in a war-torn country. I am unlikely to be tortured for my views. None of these facts is to my personal credit. I was not born in the UK because I am a better person, or more deserving. I was born in the UK because I am, (setting aside such questions as soul’s contract, the relative spiritual poverty of material wealth etc.), randomly fortunate. Therefore, shouldn’t I be looking at how I can share my good fortune with those who drew the shorter straws?
It can become relatively easy to feel compassion towards those who have transgressed in similar ways to ourselves, those less fortunate, even those whose transgressions seem alien to us. But it is often much more difficult to feel it towards those who have hurt us deeply.
Someone who has betrayed our trust, spread harmful rumours about us or inflicted irreparable physical or psychological damage may have done so because of his or her own deep woundedness. We may be able to recognise this on some level, but painful resentment can block all routes to compassion. We may feel we are entitled to our anger, and hold it close like a precious talisman, warding off compassion because “they don’t deserve to be forgiven”. What we often do not realise is how much more we are hurting ourselves than those we cannot forgive (and if the resentment is towards ourselves, we have a vicious cycle of self-loathing poisoning our system).
I have experienced both states, and known the seeming satisfaction of holding a grudge. I have also known the painful paralysis that festers silently within, preventing one from moving on into the gracious flow of new life beyond old resentment. This only became conscious for me when I was ready to begin the healing process of letting go the old to embrace the new. I did not believe forgiveness or compassion possible. Yet merely contemplating the impossibility and wishing it were different broke the spell. It allowed me, in time, to transcend the toxicity of bitter acrimony and find a new level of compassion, and love, for myself and those who’d hurt me, and hope for the bright new world in which I found myself as a result.
These are my ingredients for compassion, and I am happy with the dish they blend together to create. Perhaps your recipe is different, but, if it is the creation of your highest truth, the final feast will be no less delicious. Gourmet compassion is a treat for the soul; our own, and that of the world.
Tam Martin Fowles