What It Means

Compassion is awful.

I have a Buddhist practice. I have an Earth-based spirituality. I am a working artist. I am surrounded by people who care about things – the environment, social justice, personal growth, integrity, aesthetics, community. I hear the word “compassion” a lot. It’s offered with a soft smile. It sounds like a light, warm rain. It is held out like a downy blanket. It is a way we all agree to be.

Compassion is a sort of gentleness. With ourselves and others. It’s a nice thing.

Except I think it’s not.

I think compassion is hardcore. I think it’s kick-butt. I think it’s rock-and-roll. It is not nice. It is not gentle. And it is not easy.

Com-passion. To feel with. And not “feel” like emotion. Feel like a fist in the stomach. Compassion is not a ‘feeling’. It’s a visceral experience. And it’s awful.

That’s why we don’t do nearly enough of it.

Compassion is not pity. It’s not sympathy, or forgiveness. It’s not empathic understanding. It’s not universal love. And it is not even remotely abstract. It is the bone-deep knowing that I am helplessly lashed to the suffering of others. I am tied to it. I am inseparable from it. The pain of another being is my own.

Not a pain I can imagine. Not a pain I can commiserate with. A pain I have.

I don’t get to feel it, and then let it go. I don’t get to visit it, like a tourist. Make a donation, tsk tsk with friends, wave signs, circulate petitions. Not that some of these are not good and valuable actions to take, but they don’t let me off the hook I want off of so badly. Articulation, passion, activism – I can (and should) work for change but I can’t change the fact that the pain of another being lives inside me, without balm, for as long as that being is suffering.

And if I crack open that door, I realize pretty quickly that I can’t hold it closed. That if the pain of one other being lives inside me, then the pain of all other beings lives inside me. I cannot be truly free of suffering as long as any being anywhere in the world is suffering.

I can be in denial. I can distract myself, avert my eyes, protect my ignorance. But that suffering still lives inside me and, if and when I open to it, it will rip my heart in two. It will make me tender and raw like a wound. It will scramble my priorities.

Compassion is awful.

And we know it. On some level, we all know it.

Why do we find something else really important to look at, when we’re stopped at an intersection three feet from someone with a handmade, pleading cardboard sign?

(And yes, I know you don’t do any of this. But I’ll bet you know someone who does.)

Why do we joke with our friends about how we can’t even listen to that Sarah McLachlan song anymore because it’s the soundtrack to the commercial that shows images of brutalized and abandoned animals?

Why do we get angry at the people on the news who were “too stupid” to get out of the way of the flood waters, to drive safely on the icy roads, to save their houses from wildfire? Or at those “self-righteous” people who post upsetting videos of slaughterhouses and feedlots and cosmetic labs online?

Why do we blame the addict for his addiction, rather than let ourselves imagine the desperation in which he (and many others) died? Why do we rush to suggest the daughter might be a liar, rather than think about the horror of her abuse (and the abuse of many like her) at the hands of a man she trusted and many of us idolized?

We don’t want to feel that pain. We don’t want to be forced to feel that pain. We don’t even want to be invited to feel that pain.  We don’t want to have to see it.

We don’t want to have to witness the suffering of other beings, no matter how we rationalize the circumstances, or normalize the context. No matter what we might think about the justification of the death penalty, or the necessity of warfare, or the economics of food production, no matter how philosophically our intellect may have resigned itself to concepts like punishment, sacrifice, tough love, unfortunate inevitability – if our eyes actually see other beings in pain, our hearts will feel it. We can talk about biochemistry, mirror neurons, quantum physics. We can talk about spiritual and energetic connection. It doesn’t matter what we call it or how we explain it. Compassion is what happens when I realize that the suffering of other beings is, also and inescapably, my own. It is the understanding of one of the hardest truths I am capable of knowing.

And, like every hard truth, there are great gifts on the other side of facing it. And a huge price to be paid if I don’t.

When I live closed off to reality – to any part of reality – I live closed off to parts of myself. And if I have some experience of feeling what seems un-survivable – a pain that is out of my control, immense, unending – if I can sit with another’s pain, and survive it, maybe I can have the courage to sit with my own.

I am lashed to the suffering of others. That’s just true. Anything else is not. But what will knowing that do to me? How will that crack me open and what will it be like to walk around this way? Without my armor of not-knowing?

Can I stand it?

Do I even want to try?

Compassion is saying yes to that question. It is looking at the things I don’t want to see, not looking away from them. It is (sometimes, and maybe only for a moment) looking past my opinions and judgments and seeing my own losses in somebody else’s eyes. I want to acknowledge how hard that is. And how necessary. And to give that hard, necessary work its proper name.

So by all means, be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. Forgive. Love. Empathize, even.

But don’t confuse those things with compassion.

You’ll know when you’re being compassionate.

It’ll be when you feel like a hard-ass with a broken heart.


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7 thoughts on “What It Means

  1. Paulita February 5, 2014

    Word. Thank you.

  2. Shaun February 5, 2014

    Wise, nuanced definition of compassion. Thank you. Until I read this, I had not connected compassion with this: my poet’s need for observation. We often avoid observation, being open to the details of people’s lives, because it’s hard–or as you say, “awful.” It is easier to avoid the details, avoid the observation and go straight to judgment. That kind of judgment lacks poetry; it also lacks humanity.

  3. Melissa February 5, 2014

    Compassion is the thing that makes me withdraw from the world as completely as I can when I am my most wounded.I simply have no more energy or space to hold others’ experiences–joy, love, suffering , anger–doesn’t matter. I’m tapped out. The hardest thing for me to do is open myself back up at all because there is no picking and choosing where my compassion lies. To have compassion for myself, even, means being a live wire picking up everything all around me. Thanks for giving me another label to put on the moments I am just overwhelmed and sitting squarely in it.

    • Laurie Dietrich February 5, 2014

      Exactly. I think we often use this word too glibly, to mean something like “sympathy” or “I care about…”. We have perfectly good words for things like pity, understanding, kindness… but compassion is the word for something that is stronger, harder, and much more intimate. And, as you say, it can be overwhelming even when what you’re feeling with others is their joy, or their love. It’s a big, brave, difficult thing to do – to open yourself like that, even a little, even for just as long as you can. Thank you for being one of the people who knows that. 🙂

  4. Laurie Dietrich February 5, 2014

    What a great connection, Shaun! Yes! I hadn’t thought about it but Yes! Real compassion – that unflinching ability to look AT rather than away – is very much at the heart of good poetry, good writing, even good art. It’s a component of the clear-seeing that elevates a personal expression into a universal experience. Thank you for putting these two together for me.

  5. Winnie Kelly February 5, 2014

    Wow! Great work! Beautiful.

  6. Paulita February 5, 2016

    :tears: thank you again, Laurie.


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