Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Compassion

Nobody in Particular,

            I find inspiration for life in many places. A constant source this year has been from a small desk calendar that I received from a student last year as a Christmas gift. Just about every other day or so there is a quote that I really like, and I typically share it with the students that day. And at least once per month there is one that I like so much that I tape it to my desk, my computer screen, or somewhere close enough in the immediate vicinity that I end up taking notice of it at least once per day. Perhaps one of my absolute favorites is a quote from the Dalai Lama: “If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” Though some may think this quote borders on platitude, I believe it captures the essence of the single commonality that runs through all of the world’s great faith traditions—to care for the other.

            A couple of years ago when I first began seriously wrestling with the cardinal virtues that I wanted to cultivate in my life, I read a short book by Karen Armstrong titled Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. The author spent a good deal of her adulthood living a religious life as a Christian nun, and later left the convent to eventually become a world-renown scholar of religion. The compact treatise is based on a TED talk she had given a couple of years earlier during which she championed the need for compassion in a globalized world. Based on her research and own religious insights, Armstrong effectively illustrates that compassion is indeed the single sinew that binds the entire body of global religious beliefs together. Regardless of epoch or cultural context, all of the world’s religions openly express the need to welcoming others and doing our best to help them in whatever way we can. If we enter into all dialogue and/or relationships with others using compassion as a common ground, there is a palpable potential to make lasting connections that overlook innocuous differences.

            Compassion is ultimately about understanding. But while we tend to think of compassion as oriented toward the other, it really begins with ourselves. Much like we see in the Dalai Lama quote above, being compassionate starts when we recognize the need to accept who we are and embrace its totality, strengths and weaknesses. Whether due to culture or otherwise, we all have a tendency to be our own worst critics. Even if we don’t express it outright, very often we are berating ourselves in our own minds. I could be wrong in this, but I certainly was this way (and perhaps still am, though to a much, much lesser degree). Many others with whom I have spoken about this topic seem to agree that this has been their experience as well, whether it’s my students, peers, or elders. If this type of self-criticism is as universal as it seems to be, then its recognition is the first step on the path to becoming more compassionate toward our own faults and working to improve them. It is only a matter of time before we begin to extend this empathetic understanding toward others.

            If there were a caveat to compassion it’s this: compassion requires a fine line to be tread, ethically speaking. It’s one thing to say that we must accept others for who they are and to treat them with encouragement and understanding, especially when they are trying their best to improve their lives for the better. But it is another matter entirely when we allow ourselves to accept those most in need of help but are not willing to take a stand against them when it is for their own good. Far too often people think being compassionate is a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction on the part of the person who is empathetic toward someone’s suffering. I think true compassion, however, requires a perfect blend of what MLK, Jr. called “tough-mindedness” and “tender-heartedness.” We must be “tough-minded” in the sense that we should strive to live out our values / moral code, and yet we must be “tender-hearted” in that we have to do our best to love ourselves and others openly. The trick is not letting one impetus override the other. Instead, we must do our best to allow compassion to flourish in an organic way—a constant give and take of showing our loving acceptance and sharing with others strategies for successful personal change. Ultimately the only person you can work on is yourself, NIP, but it’s necessary if you want to help others in the long run.

            You may have noticed the same dynamic at work in the previous letter about love. To some extent I think this has been the case for all of the five attributes. Whether it’s love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, or patience, we must begin by making these subtle shifts internally before their outward expression can have any lasting meaning or impact. Just as we cannot love others without learning to love ourselves, we cannot accept shortcomings in others compassionately without examining, understanding, and accepting our own. Acceptance is only the first step, however; once we accept, we need to commit ourselves to improving our foibles with all due diligence.

            Thanksgiving is tomorrow and, though a time traditionally seen for gratitude, it’s a good time to practice compassion both with ourselves and others: ourselves because many (perhaps even most) Americans tend to get upset about weight-gain and worry about what and how much they’re going to eat (on top of all of our other stresses and pressures); others because the holiday allows us to gather with family members, some of whom may be sorely in need of compassion and with whom it would be easiest to practice. For those fortunate enough to have some time off of work, we could use this time to reflect and be grateful for the compassion that others have shown to us or for those moments we had the wisdom to bestow it upon ourselves. Whatever you choose to do during this holiday, I hope that you at least spend it in the company of family and friends, NIP. Hopefully this time of healing and celebration will act as a springboard into a more compassionate life in the near future.

Practice compassion, NIP.

- Ryan 

P.S. - Click here if you'd like to watch Karen Armstrong's original TED talk. I didn't mention it earlier, but TED annually gives a $100,000 award to the best TED talk to help transform the person's idea into a reality. Karen Armstrong's idea won this prize and she used the money to research and write her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.