Compassion Examined: a start

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The Pantheon, Rome

Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity – Pema Chodron

Shane Claiborne mentioned a reference to Dr King in a recent conversation with Krista Tippett and I felt compelled to investigate it. It comes from Martin Luther King and it throws light on the word compassion that deserves a hearing:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

“A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church

This is a massive challenge and will require considerable thought – the speech can be applied to all kinds of situations where the ‘edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’. It is huge and the arc of Dr King’s vision a little overwhelming at this stage.

So where to start? Possibly by going to the default that most people are trying to do their best. Brene Bown refers to her husband in Rising Strong: “Steve says his life is better when he assumes people are doing the best they can. I think he’s right.”

A great way to start. It states it simply and although the living of this is hard at times, I suppose we can stop ourselves and return to this original thinking.

Trying to get to purchase on this huge topic of compassion, I also went to Pema Chodron and this is what I read from her book The Places that Scare You.

“When we practise generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently towards what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.”

This demonstrates that compassion is more than a gooey feeling. It involves work and digging down and not moving away. It takes clear thinking to allow ourselves to go to ‘places that scare us’ and ‘let fear soften us’. My reptilian brain wants to do the opposite usually. These next lines also place compassion on a new kind of footing altogether:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others.

Again, it requires us to examine the darkness. I think that there is a book in there somewhere – The Examined Darkness: what happens when it is unexamined.  I think it means that we accept suffering and that we are open to it and don’t hide behind the sofa. “Without justifying or condemning ourselves,” Pema continues, “we do the courageous work of opening to suffering.” And this takes huge courage. The other chapter in The Examined Darkness  will have to be subtitled Battalions of Courage. 

Krista Tippett in her TED talk illuminates a new understanding of compassion and casting light and openness, saying out loud:

Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion, towards bringing compassion towards the suffering and joys of others.

Like all these thinkers and wise people they urge us to to ‘start where are and then expand our capacity’. The trick of expanding our capacity is where the battalions come in. We can start small, I suppose and ‘contact compassion where ever we find it’.

Karen Armstrong, also speaking about compassion, brings in a wonderful story in a TED talk:

There’s a famous story about the great rabbi, Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it … 

And “go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule.” 

Ah, yes, the Golden Rule … treat others as you would like to be treated. Perhaps it is as simple as that: recognising our shared humanity.

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The Vatican

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